ORLEANS — In the early 1980s, Police Lt. Kevin Higgins wore a different uniform. Clad in a lab coat, worn to protect the computers, he worked the midnight shift at Cape Cod Bank and Trust's data processing center.
A colleague's husband, a state trooper at the Yarmouth barracks, would drop in for a coffee break. “He kept saying computers are the coming thing in police work,” Higgins recalled. Finally, he accepted the trooper's offer of a ride-along. “I was hooked,” he said.
So it was fitting that the lieutenant's last patrol shift before retiring should find him accompanied by a photographer and a reporter last Friday night.
The evening was mostly a low-key affair, offering plenty of time for conversation and stories. First there was roll call, with the outgoing shift providing updates to the incoming. Looking at Higgins, Officer Casey Eagan said, “So you just walk out tomorrow?” Then she added, “No one wants the mayor to leave.”
Case information appeared on a screen: a warrant served without incident, a Wendy's customer smashing a glass pane in a rage, a man found intoxicated behind a restaurant, bottles and nips discovered on the extensive middle school grounds, and the possible theft of morphine derivatives.
Back in Higgins's office, the press was fitted with bulky bulletproof vests. He recalled that they came into use “right around the time I came out of the academy. Not everyone in the department bought into that philosophy.” That changed when a video of a Texas traffic stop circulated, a constable's dash camera recording as his gun was grabbed and he was shot.
To start his patrol on this sunny late afternoon, Higgins drove slowly around the middle school in response to the reports of bottles and nips. It was much like gliding in an airplane under the command of an experienced, soft-spoken, unflappable pilot.
Had he meet any celebrities over the decades? Yes, actress Holly Hunter, for one. “She was having coffee at Nonnie's Country Kitchen,” he said. “She had an entourage with her. Someone came over and said, 'Miss Hunter is interested in talking.' She was looking for a place to buy.”
Higgins didn't refer to him as a celebrity, but a former Massachusetts governor was well known to his family. “My dad bought the property we live in from Frank Sargent,” he said. “He sold his hunting cabin to my dad in 1938, two acres with a cottage for $2,000. By 1988, the property tax equaled what my dad paid for it.”
The lieutenant's grandfather, “One Arm Fred,” was a noted game hunter who took prominent folks such as Ted Williams hunting. His uncle was a former Orleans chief, and his ancestor 15 or 16 generations back was Richard Higgins, a settler of Eastham, who became its first constable.
His two youngest children, Colton and Allie, are at Nauset High. The eldest, Austin, went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute and now works at Pratt and Whitney in Connecticut on a new air drive turbine for jetliners. Daughter Samantha, “a bit of a rebel,” is up in Boston.
Higgins went to Cape Cod Community College after graduating from Nauset High in 1979. He studied computer programming, and went to work at CCB&T as an intern while he was still in school.
The state trooper who took him on that ride-along advised him to get involved with his local department, and in 1987 he became a summer special officer along with Tony Pike. Pike served eight months while waiting for a spot to open at the fire department, eventually becoming chief there.
By 1988, Higgins and Melissa Marshall were full-time officers along with James Rosato, who will succeed him as lieutenant.
There was nothing much to see at the middle school, so Higgins turned the car to his usual first stop on sunny days: Nauset Beach. He cruised through the town's Hubler property and then down into the main lot, where preparations were under way for Saturday's Roots and Blues festival.
Then it was on to the shopping centers, his first stop if it's a rainy day. If you've ever wondered why a police car is driving around a parking lot, here's at least two reasons: people parked in fire lanes and others abusing the privilege of handicapped spots.
Higgins came up behind a car at Skaket Corners sitting in a fire lane, its left turn signal winking. All his movements were slow as he approached the driver's side. There was nothing rushed about the way he spoke. Just then, an elderly woman using a walker came out of the store. The lieutenant moved to her side to help her off the curb.
Back in his car, Higgins admitted to a little humor. “I asked (the driver) if she was a fire truck,” he said. “I told her we need to keep the lane open.”
Approaching a Jeep in the fire lane outside Shaw's, Higgins couldn't even get out of the car before being recognized by a passing group of young people. They said hi, and applauded and wished him well when they learned he's retiring. The passenger in the Jeep was quick to move his vehicle.
Next up was a driver who'd parked across four spaces, which seemed a little odd. She was just waiting for someone to pop into her car, and again Higgins was recognized with big smiles. These were sisters Nancy and Trish Griffin, real estate brokers who worked with his wife Stacie. “You're leaving?” one said. “How sad!” They got moving.
Amid this happiness, the photographer asked what Higgins considered the saddest moment of his career.
“You make me cry just thinking about it,” he said quietly, and paused before going on. “I got a call on the midnight shift, when I was about five years on the job... to the Governor Prence Motel, a code 99, no breathing, no pulse. I banged a left out of the (Cumberland Farms) parking lot and shot down the street. I went from a resting heartbeat of 40 to probably 160. The father was running around the building carrying the baby. I did CPR on the trunk. Ray Merrill, the fire chief, arrived and headed off to Cape Cod Hospital, left me standing there. I went home and stared at the ceiling for 12 hours.”
After his first child was born, Higgins said, “I came home every 90 minutes to make sure he was breathing.”
Now to the Stop and Shop plaza, where surrounding woods have harbored the homeless. “There are a couple of places on our radar screen,” Higgins said. “The Namskaket Road cranberry bog (and) behind the Lobster Claw.”
On the way to the industrial area at Rayber Road, Higgins talked about his longtime efforts to improve bike safety. The former bike patrolman set up a program through which officers hand out bike lights and reflectors during safety stops.
“It's awfully quiet tonight,” Higgins said, “not a high level of calls for service. Of course, it could change in a heartbeat.”
Then down the road into South Orleans and its twisting country lanes that open on vistas of Pleasant Bay. Here, among other things, Higgins was looking for cars that might have been left on the side of the road. He wanted to make sure they're gone before night falls.
During another stop at Nauset Beach, Higgins chatted with Pike, who tried playfully to recruit him for his department. “My guys made me gray,” Higgins says. “His made him bald.”
Back on Beach Road, a call came in about a possible house break-in on Tonset Road. With no fanfare, Higgins turned on his blue flashers and sped up. A neighbor had spotted a door left open in an abandoned house. Two officers were on the scene already. Higgins waded through lush overgrowth to a back deck and inspected the premises. The house stood suspended in the midst of an interior renovation, adding to its mysterious vibe.
The lieutenant had been on the road nearly four hours. His shift would continue to midnight.
The next day, Higgins worked the Roots and Blues festival. That night, Chronicle Executive Editor Alan Pollock heard his final sign-off.
“The broadcast lasted about a minute,” Pollock wrote, “and he said how honored he has been to have served the department, and how proud he is of its members. He urged officers to always remember their own safety with the goal of getting home safely after every shift. The broadcast was acknowledged by the dispatcher, who wished him well. Then there was a response from the fire department, thanking him for his work for the town and his close relationship with the fire department. It got me a little choked up; radio messages like this are pretty rare.”
The fire department's message was from Higgins's old colleague Tony Pike, who thanked the lieutenant for “your professionalism, kindness and friendship for the past 30 years. God bless you and have a happy retirement.”