Editor's note: This is the second of four parts honoring local first responders. Today: The Kokomo Police Department.
It was Labor Day weekend 1991. Michael Vautaw, just three years into his career as an officer with the Kokomo Police Department, was scheduled to work but was instead fortunate enough to be given time off due to the holiday weekend.
Since he usually worked midnights, Vautaw happened to still be up when he heard the news break over his police radio.
“It was probably 3 a.m., and the officers working said there was a large fight that took place on East Monroe Street,” Vautaw said, reflecting on the incident as he sat in the shift supervisor’s office at KPD headquarters earlier this week.
“We call it a Code 10 when an officer needs help, and it went Code 10 there. It was some type of birthday party at a house. And after the fight there, they moved the party to the Elks Lodge at Havens and LaFountain streets, where another large fight broke out.”
Hearing that the officers were asking for assistance, Vautaw remembers heading over to KPD and being sent right to work. Unlike these days, police back then would usually use the downtown location to perform initial book-ins of prisoners and then transport those prisoners to the Howard County jail. That morning, that task fell on Vautaw’s shoulders.
Until about 5 a.m.
That’s when someone called KPD from a payphone outside of the Elks Lodge and said people were “shooting the place up,” Vautaw noted.
Since he was near the area at the time, Vautaw turned his squad car in that direction and was the first to arrive on scene.
“I stopped on Purdum and Monroe streets and could see the Elks Lodge and the phone booth where the alleged call came from,” he said. “Well, as I was standing there, there was some overgrown brush to my right and some people that were hiding in there decided they were going to shoot at me.”
Vautaw said he heard the gunshot — which passed through his passenger door and exited just inches away from his feet. As he sped away from the scene, Vautaw said the group fired on him about 30 more times.
It was a close call — described as one of the scariest moments in Vautaw’s nearly 31-year career with the department.
But police had the last laugh that day, Vautaw said, as officers were able to make arrests of each and every person involved in that incident.
These days Vautaw — a dayshift/“A watch” commander for KPD’s Uniform Division — said he has fewer of those types of calls, but he does miss life on patrol.
“It’s still my first love,” he said, referring to patrol work. “When you think of a police officer, you think of a badge, a uniform and a police car. And the most enjoyable time I had in my career was when I was midnight patrol as an officer.”
Of course, the fact that Vautaw even became an officer at all is an interesting story too.
Having always had an inkling of wanting to be a police officer, Vautaw actually went to Marion College — now Indiana Wesleyan University — for Christian ministries. After graduation, he wound up in a little town near LaPorte called Kingsford Heights, where he was a youth pastor and also worked at Westville Correctional Facility.
While there, Vautaw also helped out with the Kingsford Heights Volunteer Fire Department, which worked closely with the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department.
“And that’s what got my juices going about being in law enforcement,” he said.
Around that time, KPD had an opening, and Vautaw jumped at the opportunity.
He’s been with the department ever since.
Vautaw still remembers putting on that uniform for the first time too.
“I was so proud,” he said. “It was a sense of accomplishment that I finally got to do what I was dreaming about for so long.”
And that’s what it really boils down to, Vautaw said. Police work is about people. It’s also about relationships.
“This place [KPD] is a sense of family,” he said. “You develop strong bonds with the people you work with because of what we’re doing day in and day out on the street. I refer to these people as my family, and it’s amazing what these men and women do. I’m just glad I get to witness it.”
But Vautaw said he also knows police officers aren’t always viewed favorably by some members of the public, and it’s a misconception he wishes could be broken.
“We’re human beings too,” he said. “I think people tend to forget that when you are cussing me out, you’re cussing out a man. I get it. It’s the uniform. I learned that a long time ago that there are people who don’t like me because of what I’m wearing or what I do for a living. But police officers, especially police officers here in Kokomo, are some of the best people that a community can have, and that gets lost sometimes.”
“People don’t surprise me anymore,” he said. “They are capable of doing some pretty incredible things and some pretty horrendous things. Dealing with the public, you get all kinds of different perspectives or opinions, and it gets challenging sometimes for a police officer to meet people at a moment of crisis and work through that in a way that’s going to help them in the end.”
And that’s where his favorite piece of advice comes from, he said.
“The guys around here have probably heard me say this 500 times if not more,” he said smiling, “but don’t take anyone or anything for granted.”
It’s a message Vautaw also imparts on his youngest daughter, Emily, who followed in her father’s law enforcement footsteps. Currently a member of the airport police, Emily has been a police officer for three years. And although he is proud that she wanted to follow in his shoes, Vautaw said he also worries about her safety.
Because he’s been there.
But being a police officer is also something Vautaw said he wouldn’t change for the world.
“You want to do your best for people,” he said. "You want to make an impact. I’ve always wanted to make a positive impact for people, and I got into this because I wanted to make a difference.
"I think that’s the nature of the work, and I think that’s why anyone wants to become a police officer in the first place. And I think I’ve impacted a lot more people doing what I do now than I ever would have as a pastor. I think this was my calling all along. This is my ministry, if you want to call it that.”