Oro Valley Police Officer Mike Stevenson burst on the media scene for the first time a dozen years ago in an incident that had nothing to do with his role as a cop.
Ceremonies last week marking his early retirement, however, paid homage to all the contributions he's made to the department and community at large since he joined the force as a reserve officer in 1984 and full-time officer the following year.
Stevenson, the department's first Medal of Valor recipient and the first officer on the force to retire because of a medical disability, was actually on vacation when fame first came his way on a summer day in 1991.
He and his father were about to wrap up a slow day of fishing on the Black River in the mountains northeast of Globe when a man approached from downstream seeking help for his daughter, who had tumbled on some rocks and broken her leg.
After gathering ropes, materials for splints, water and everything else that might be needed for an extended stay on the river because the day was drawing to an end, Stevenson, his dad and the father of the injured girl hiked back to where she lie, reaching her an hour later.
The trail was too narrow to have the girl put her arms over Stevenson and his dad to carry her out, so a raft was built using an air mattress with a log strung across the raft and ropes tied to the log.
Stevenson, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall, then tied the ropes around his chest and proceeded to drag the raft upstream, against the current, for the next four hours in water up to six feet deep in sections.
Once back at the campsite, tent poles were used as splints for the girl's leg and she was whisked away to the hospital.
Stevenson said he thought little about the incident until he started getting phone calls from the mayor and his chief after word of his exploits got out in a letter written by the girl's father to the media, resulting in his Medal of Valor.
The incident exemplifies what Police Chief Danny Sharp said always has been characteristic of Stevenson's performance. "It's his work ethic," said Sharp. "He could always be counted on to do his job and to do it well."
It's exactly what Stevenson said he hopes to be remembered for by the department and the community: being someone who, if given a task "could be trusted to have the integrity to get it done and get it done right.
A rare instance in which things didn't go just right for Stevenson occurred back in September while he was teaching at the Southern Arizona Law Enforce-ment Training Aca-demy. Stevenson was playing the bad guy, lying in a prone firing position in a training exercise when a live stun grenade mistakenly was thrown in a doorway, hitting him in the shoulder before exploding, causing sever burns and significant damage to his hearing. It is the reason for his retirement at the age of 40.
Loss of hearing could pose major problems, Stevenson said. "Say you're doing a building search and a fellow officer is whispering to you so he's not being heard by a suspect," Stevenson said. "I'm not going to be able to hear things like that and that creates a hazard, not only for me, but for other members of the department."
Stevenson has served in the department's drunken driving unit, as a traffic accident investigator, a proficiency skills instructor at the training academy, a member of the bicycle unit, a trainer within the department and a member of a special operations and traffic unit responsible for coordinating traffic flow at such events as the Greater Oro Valley Arts Council's Fourth of July celebrations, Tucson Marathon and El Tour de Tucson bike races.
Three years ago, while coordinating traffic at a Canyon del Oro High School graduation, there was an accident in which two cars were rear-ended. There were no serious injuries, but Stevenson felt somewhat to blame. "It really struck me how incredibly personal he took that," Sharp said.
"The biggest thing I'll miss is the people and the ability to be so active, so involved in the community and knowing that when you're working with people to coordinate a town event, you're doing the best you can to make that event a success," Stevenson said.
When Stevenson joined the department there were nine officers on the force. Now there are 74. The town's population was near 3,000 compared with nearly 35,000 residents currently. La Canada Drive and Naranja Drive were dirt roads and Rancho Vistoso hadn't even been thought about yet.
Stevenson is especially proud of the Oro Valley Police Department's history of community oriented policing.
"I've always had a great relationship with the community," Stevenson said. "I've always tried to get to know the business owners, who the residents are and I think the type of policing we've done has always fit right into that. We just put a formal name to that philosophy of being involved in the community, being part of the community and being a resource for the community to help in every way we can to solve problems on a grass roots level.
"It's not just saying we have a problem and we can do this to fix it," Stevenson said. "It's also asking, 'is that problem going to come back' and going a step farther and figuring out what you're going to do to keep it from coming back."
Stevenson said he wants to try and stay involved in community affairs, but has yet to figure out how to do so. Meanwhile, he's looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Stephanie, and their four children, ages two through 12.
"He's a very loving, very committed father and husband and I've admired that about him since he was a very young man," said Becky Mendez, department public information spokeswoman. "In this profession it's real easy to get caught up in your law enforcement family and deprive your home family. It's really important that officers are able to balance both sides. I've seen Michael do that and I admire that about him"
On embarking from his pickup truck after a traditional motorcycle escort from his home to police headquarters to receive his ceremonial badge marking the end of a long career, Stevenson was already dressed for his new role.
Hawaiian shirts and shorts are now the order of the day.