When Terry Nightingale joined the Columbia Heights Police Department in 1985, he didn’t look or seem like a typical cop.
He was in his early 20s, but appeared younger. He weighed just 125 pounds. And, he was an introvert. “I took Dale Carnegie classes before I was hired,” he said.
Early on, he added, “It got noted in my field training evaluation that I was a bit timid.” That’s when he began watching the other officers. “I started emulating them. I saw how they worked with people. Larry Klink, for instance, was such a fair guy. Everybody knew him. He was willing to listen to people. That’s where it worked out for me. I was able to use elements that I had in my personality. I can empathize with people. I want to hear both sides of the story.”
Nightingale retired last week, after 33 years on the job. When the department threw him a farewell party on March 27, the room was packed with well-wishers.
Residents, city officials, firefighters and many police officers—present and retired—gathered in the Public Safety building’s community room to say goodbye and watch a slide show about Nightingale’s life on the job. (It included his early days, when his hair was longer and his glasses bigger, and featured a host of different squad cars he had driven through the years.)
Columbia Heights City Manager Walt Fehst and Police Chief Lenny Austin gave short speeches commending Nightingale for his dedication. Austin jokingly called Nightingale “a walking information system,” who had helped the department lighten the load in many areas.
“Someone like Terry is the reason why every little kid in America continues to dream about being a police officer,” Austin said. “Terry, you’ll be missed, but not forgotten.” He added that the police department has established the Terry Nightingale Annual Community Service Award, “to honor his selfless community service to the citizens of Columbia Heights for 33 years.”
Former police chief Scott Nadeau (2008 to 2017) also praised Nightingale. “Terry forged a relationship with the community. If there were 20,000 people in Columbia Heights, at least 5,000 of them thought that Terry Nightingale was their personal police officer. When I came here, I had been a police officer for more than 20 years, and I still learned things from Terry. I’m happy for him, that he’s retiring, but at the same time it’s sad to know that it’s the end of an era. When people think of the Columbia Heights Police Department, they think of Terry.”
Resident Jane Kibler said, “I’m going to miss him. He worked with us on Neighborhood Watch. I could contact him anytime, and he would call or e-mail me right back. One time somebody tried to scam me, and I called him right away and he helped me.”
Life on the job
Nightingale has worked for five police chiefs and three interim chiefs (Austin was also an interim chief). In 1985, there were 19 officers. Now, there are 27. He has worked as a patrol officer, an investigator, a bike cop, a field training officer, and, starting in 2010, a Community Oriented Policing (COP) Coordinator. In 2007, Nightingale was named the Columbia Heights Employee of the Year. In 2012, the police department gave him an Award of Merit for his work as a COP Coordinator. It was the same year that the department received the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Community Policing Award for cities under 20,000 people; Nightingale, Nadeau, and others traveled to San Diego for the awards ceremony.
He said he has seen many changes through the years. “I started when the squad cars were relatively simple; there was one police radio, a shotgun, and emergency warning equipment. We got computers in the office in 1987. Before that, we had a card catalog where we looked up people. Before we got laptops in the 1990s, we hand-wrote all our reports or used a pocket tape recorder, and the office staff had to transcribe it and type it up.”
Nightingale was one of the first Big Brothers in the department, an initiative Nadeau started. “I’ve had the same Little Brother for more than five years,” he said. “He’s in seventh grade.” Nightingale said he has given many talks to elementary school students about the police department, and he has worked with residents on Neighborhood Watch, recruiting new members. “We divided the city into quadrants and went from 60 organized blocks to 150. It wasn’t me alone doing that, of course.”
He has seen the department weather various rounds of budget cuts and local government aid cuts. Money was so scarce in 2004, Nightingale said, that a local business, Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, donated a car to the police department. On a brighter note, he and others were pleased when the police and fire departments were able to move out of the crumbling, cramped city hall space at Mill Street and 40th Avenue NE, into the new Public Safety Building on 41st Avenue.
The city has had 16 homicides in the 33 years Nightingale has been on the job. “I’ve only been on two of them. I’ve missed out on a lot of the ‘exciting’ stuff,” he said. He was referring in particular to two major events: one was the 2001 shooting spree by resident David Byrne, who ran heavily armed through a neighborhood on Jefferson Street, spraying bullets. He shot but did not kill three cops, including two Columbia Heights officers. (Byrne was shot and captured. He was institutionalized in a mental hospital in St. Peter, where he died in 2012.) Nightingale was on vacation at the time, but not out of town; he drove in as soon as he got the call, and accompanied one of the officers to the hospital.
The second high profile shooting occurred in a Central Avenue pool hall in 2005 and was gang-related. Nightingale said he had been on the day shift, and the shooting occurred at night. “It all melts together, after awhile. I’ve had a few pursuits, nothing earth shattering, and I’ve been in some scuffles but fortunately wasn’t injured.” Many officers, he added, do get injured on the job, and he has been lucky.
The early years and the future
Nightingale grew up in Hopkins, the fifth child in a family of seven kids. His father died in a car crash when he was eight years old, and his mother raised the children by herself. He attended Hopkins/Eisenhower High School, where the school resource officer invited him and his brother to go on a ride-along in 1976. “That was a catalyst for me. I said, ‘This is neat, and these are neat and dynamic people!’”
He earned an Associate of Arts degree at Normandale Community College and passed the state board test to apply for work as a police officer. After a stint as a security officer and a community service officer in other communities, he began work as a sworn office in Columbia Heights on April 1, 1985.
Nightingale said he weighs more now than he did when he first became a police officer, but he knows he is still not intimidating. “I’m Officer Friendly. I think it’s what makes people gravitate to me. I try to live by the Golden Rule and treat people well. Some call the station and ask for me by name. I’ve actually had people call me at home, to confess to crimes.”
He said that the job is very strenuous and it is constantly changing. He is retiring, he added, because it has drained him. “It has taken a toll on my mind, more than my body. I need mental replenishment.” He said he doesn’t know what he will do next, but he wants to spend time with his wife Kim, whom he calls his “number one supporter.” They have been married 31 years, and have two sons and a daughter. One son, he added, is considering going into law enforcement.
And, by the way: that name Nightingale? It’s English. His father’s family, he said, came from Hull, England. His mother’s side “is 100 percent Polish.”
Below: Terry Nightingale reads to a group of students at Valley View Elementary School and smiling for the camera. (Reading photo provided by Columbia Heights Police Department; Terry smiling photo by Gail Olson)