Columbia Heights police officer Val Dietz won’t be leading “Happy Birthday” in the police department anymore.
Dietz, who has been on the force since 1990, is retiring this month at age 51 after recent hip replacement surgery. His law enforcement career in Heights has included being a bike cop in the Sheffield neighborhood, a DARE officer at Valley View Elementary School, a sergeant and a patrol supervisor.
A former North Dakota state trooper, Dietz said he’s seen his share of action: he’s been shot at, physically assaulted, and nearly had his finger bitten off by a suspect during an arrest. He was in charge of the night shift a year ago when two people were killed at a local pool hall; he and other officers found a loaded handgun in a nearby school yard.
In 2001, Dietz was one of three police officers shot in Columbia Heights when resident David Byrne went on a shooting rampage through the neighborhood. Dietz was shot from behind; the bullet entered through his side and exited through his back.
“I was in uniform and had a ballistic shield; it’s made out of Kevlar and is supposed to stop small arms,” Dietz said. “But I got shot with a deer rifle. After I got shot, I landed on my hip on the concrete. The way I was bleeding, I thought he punctured my kidney. I thought I would die.”
Dietz said that at 28 minutes, the incident made history as the state’s longest running gun battle. “There were little kids on bikes going down the sidewalk when it started.” He added that it was a bad day for his wife Paula, too; she’d been out boating near their lake cabin up north. “I had told her, if anything ever happens to me, you won’t get a phone call. Somebody will come in person.” When she neared shore, Dietz said, she saw an officer standing on the hill waiting for her.
Columbia Heights Police Chief Tom Johnson said the day that Dietz and fellow officer Mike McGee were shot “was the longest day in my law enforcement career. It’s never easy when you have an officer go down, but when you know them, it’s even worse.” He said he was at the hospital with Dietz that night. “Our civilian staff wouldn’t go home, until I finally put Val on the phone and said, ‘Tell them you’re okay, and order them to go home.’ They left when they heard he was going to be all right.”
Dietz said he attended Alexandria Technical Institute for an associate arts degree in law enforcement, and has a degree in police administration from the University of Minnesota at Moorhead. His first job was working in Dilworth, North Dakota.
“I was the third man in a three man police department. I worked 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. and didn’t get a weekend off for two years. It was a railroad town, and it was pretty rough.” He worked as a state trooper for 11 years before he came to Columbia Heights. After police chief Stuart Anderson retired, David Mawhorter became chief; Mawhorter “had me develop the community policing program,” Dietz said, “and gave me a lot of rein to do things.” Dietz spent time with Minneapolis officers walking a foot patrol, to get an idea of what to do on the job.
“I rode a bike and walked a beat in Sheffield. It was crazy up there. They were selling crack out of the back doors of duplexes. We got a loaded 380 pistol, more than $12,000 in cash and crack-cocaine in one arrest. I felt sorry for the neighbors who had to see this going on day in and day out.”
Dietz said he liked the bike patrol. “You hear a lot of things, as people begin to trust you.”
After four years in community policing, he was transferred to investigations. Eight years ago, he was promoted to sergeant. Most recently, he has been in charge of the school patrols and the DARE program. He has also been in charge of traffic during the Heights Jamboree and carnival.
Kathleen Kaiser, principal of Valley View Elementary School in Columbia Heights, said that she and the students will miss Dietz. “He was our DARE officer, and he always stayed involved. He’d be out there at dismissal time, saying hi to the kids. They trusted him and were very comfortable with him. I found that he always showed compassion for those kids who might have had past experiences in their families with drugs or alcohol. He understood that kids couldn’t necessarily verbalize what they’d seen.
Kaiser said that before Dietz had his surgery, “he took the time to write a proposal to the American Legion for a grant to help our student safety patrols from Valley View, Highland, North Park and Immaculate Conception go to the amusement park at the Mall of America. We’re facing really tight budgets, and he was going to make it happen. Val has a huge heart for kids. He’s really invested in the community.”
Mary Dugdale, police secretary, said that Dietz “goes out of his way to be nice to people.” He has made many friends in the community, she added, “and he gets along with everybody. I’ve always enjoyed working with him. I consider him a friend, as well as a co-worker.”
Johnson said Dietz is famous for his singing at department birthday parties. “He’s really a pretty good singer; his voice rises above the rest.” He described Dietz as “one of the most gregarious people I’ve ever met. When he sees you he holds out his hand and says, ‘Put ‘er in the vice.’”
Dietz said that on his last day of work, he got a strange feeling when he turned off his laptop in his squad car. “I knew that was the last time I’d be doing it. It was a weird feeling; I was sad. Heights has been a great place to work. In other places, you don’t know your neighbors, but when we go to an alarm call here, people know whether or not their neighbors are home or gone. It’s one reason we have such a good rate of catching people.
“People come out to community functions with their kids; we’ve filled Highland’s auditorium at a DARE graduation.”
He said he liked the social service aspect of the job. “Police aren’t just there when something is happening. We’re there the next day, too, trying to get people some help.”
Dietz said he will stay busy after he retires, but doesn’t have any definite plans yet. He might stay in some related field, however. “I’m trained in background investigations and I teach laser and radar. I’ve done alcohol server training in a lot of bars, to help bartenders realize who’s intoxicated and who’s not. The Dram Shop liability is huge for serving obviously intoxicated people who get in an accident.”
He’s looking forward to sailing his sailboat in northern Minnesota lakes, he added.
For now, though, he’s recovering from a recent hip replacement surgery. “I’m looking at six to eight months of rehab. I can never be a police officer again. I can’t run, and I can’t bend.” He took an early retirement on disability, he added. “I’d planned on working until I was 55, but I didn’t have a choice about this. I had to get it done.”
He said he realized how serious his problem was when he had to chase down a suspect. “I caught him, but I was really limping after that.”
Dietz isn’t working anymore, because of the surgery. Johnson said Dietz’s last official day on the job is Feb. 24.