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Outgoing Laurel police chief reflects on his tenure, from community policing to body cameras

When Rich McLaughlin was 5 years old he was hit by a car.

“From there, I said I would either become a police officer or a firefighter,” McLaughlin said.

He did just that.

After nearly 33 years — the past eight as Laurel’s police chief — McLaughlin, 53, is retiring on Jan. 31.“It’s been a great run,” he said. “I am very excited for the next chapter. It gives me more time to spend with my family and makeup for time lost.”

McLaughlin and his wife Jenifer have three grown children.

“As a chief you’re on call 24/7, 365 days a year … there were a lot of sleepless nights,” McLaughlin said. “Quite a few times I would get a phone call in the middle of night asking for help.”

Since first walking through the doors as a civilian employee in 1986, the department has been like a second home. He became a sworn officer in 1987. In December 2010, after being the deputy chief for five years, McLaughlin was appointed to chief.

He has also been part of the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad since 1985.

Aside from being hit by a car, McLaighlin became a police officer because he wanted to “make and difference in people's lives.”

“I felt like the police and fire do a lot for people and impact lives,” he said.

One of McLaughlin's biggest strongholds has been community policing.

“Whether it’s smiling to people [or] talking to people, I think it goes a long way and everybody needs to buy into it,” he said.

McLaughlin said , that the city’s officers are “far more approachable than what they were.”

The police department is actively involved in Special Olympics, No Shave November, the Polar Plunge at Sandy Point and in Deep Creek, Relay for Life, breast cancer awareness events and more, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin’s community policing efforts have been noticed throughout the city, including with Councilman Mike Leszcz, who has witnessed McLaughlin’s rise through the ranks.

“I think about all the different police chiefs we’ve had over the years and he is probably one of the best we’ve had in terms of people talking to him and him talking to people,” Leszcz said. “I think that’s important.”

McLaughlin has worked in almost every component of the agency, including the investigations, narcotics, VICE, homicides, burglaries, internal affairs and on patrol.

“I think my career has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions,” McLaughlin said. “There are some cases, particularly in my investigation days, that I will take to my grave.”

If he had to pick just one, McLaughlin would choose being a patrol sergeant. He enjoyed helping the officers grow and groom them into becoming better police officers.

The department has increased its training as well as modified it, McLaughlin said. When an officer receives training it covers an array of topics instead of focusing on a single topic.

One topic includes an officer’s justification for a use of force. The training has become more scenario-based soan officer can decide which kind of force is the best to use, whether it’s verbalized, non-lethal or a lethal method of force.

McLaughlin was also an advocate for all police officers to have body cameras.

“He’s an advocate for technology to protect [both] citizens and police officers,” Leszcz said. “When we had seen the [body] cameras, he was an advocate right away.”

Body cameras “adds to the accountability and transparency of a police department,” McLaughlin said.

He also helped oversee the design and building of the new police department which was completed in early 2010.

In 2013, McLaughlin received the Mayor’s Award, the city’s highest honor for employees.

On receiving the award, McLaughlin said he was left speechless.

“The city of Laurel should be proud of the police department it has,” McLaughlin said. “The officers have some phenomenal talent. It’s unrecognizable how dedicated some of these officers are.”

Laurel police has 70 sworn officers and about 25 civilian employees.

Martin Flemion, who retired as city administrator after a nearly 42-year career in September, spoke on McLaughlin’s behalf Monday night at the city council meeting where McLaughlin was recognized for his service.

“Rich, wow, who’da [sic] thought. Years ago, you would be calling me, waking up in the middle of the night, mostly telling me there was snowflakes hitting the ground,” Flemion said. “I remember when you became chief of police and I would be calling you in the middle of night, asking what’s up with the helicopters?”

Flemion, who also worked on the improvements to the police department, credited the project to McLaughlin.

“You certainly took the bulls by the horns and you ran with that project,” Flemion said. “That building certainly has your name deeply engraved in it.”

McLaughlin said he always wanted to be part of a big team or a big family, and he found that within the police department.

“I’m going to miss a lot of it. A lot of lifelong friendships have been established,” he said. “It’s a family atmosphere.”

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