Breckenridge Texan

Larry Mahan looks back on 40 years of law enforcement

Larry Mahan looks back on 40 years of law enforcement
February 07
11:23 2020

Editor’s note: As long-time Breckenridge Police Chief Larry Mahan was going into the final few weeks before his retirement, he sat down with Breckenridge Texan Publisher Tony Pilkington for an in-depth look back at his law enforcement career.

When Larry Mahan passed along his badge – and later his keys – to Bacel Cantrell on the afternoon of Jan. 31, he wasn’t just retiring from a 21-year job; Mahan was wrapping up more than 40 years in a career that he decided on when he was about 12 years old.

He was inspired to go into law enforcement by his uncle, John Edwards, who was a deputy and then the Young County Sheriff for more than 30 years.

“I was always fascinated with him,” Mahan said. “That’s kinda where I got my first inkling.”

That inspiration turned into a job and eventually into a lifelong devotion.

But, Friday, Jan. 31, was Mahan’s last day as Breckenridge’s Chief of Police. He gave a heartfelt speech, wishing Cantrell good luck, just before Cantrell was sworn in as the new police chief. After the ceremony, he handed Cantrell his badge and walked out the door with his wife, Angela, on his way to enjoy retirement.

That first police job

In 1978, when Mahan took his first job as a police officer, he was only 19 years old.

After graduating from Breckenridge High School in the class 1977, Mahan attended college in Snyder for a semester then transferred to Cisco Junior College in Cisco.

Larry Mahan is pictured here with his Breckenridge Police cruiser in the 1980s. He worked at the BPD from 1982-1993, when he left to become the Chief Deputy of Stephens County, a position he held until 1998, when he was named Police Chief. (Photo courtesy of Larry Mahan)

While at Cisco, one of his friends, who had worked at the Cisco Police Department, told him about an opening at the CPD.

“He said, ‘Let’s go see Gary Bone,’” Mahan said. “I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s the chief down there.’ So we went down there, and I talked to Gary. In about 15 minutes I got a job.”

The law was different back then, Mahan said. A person only had to be 18 years old to be a police officer in Texas; now it’s 21.

Additionally, in order to get into a police academy at that time, police officers got a job first and then the city they worked for would send them to the academy. That’s changed, too, Mahan said. Now, before someone can become a police officer, they are required to attend the academy first or be hired by a big city that has its own police academy.

“You had six months from the time of employment to get to an academy,” Mahan said. “(I was hired)  like on a Tuesday; I went to work on Friday night at 11 o’clock, and this young guy pulled up to pick me up. His name was Marion Cope. He had been out of the academy a week, and I sat down in the car with him and I said, ‘Who else is working?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Just you and me, Bubba.’ That was my first night on patrol.”

Mahan said that about four months later, the CPD sent him and Trey Pellizzari, who was a friend of his from Breckenridge and was also working for the department, to the police academy in Abilene. He said the two of them drove back and forth each day to Abilene. The length of the program at the academy was six weeks back then, Mahan said, but now it’s about nine months.

Not long after he graduated from the academy, Mahan was offered a job in Breckenridge working as a deputy for Stephens County Sheriff Louie Hall, who was the first African American elected as sheriff in the state of Texas since reconstruction and a friend of Mahan’s.

Early interest in law enforcement

Mahan’s acquaintance and friendship with Louie Hall stretched back to when he was in high school and spent Friday and Saturday nights riding on patrol with Hall, who was a deputy sheriff in Stephens County at the time.

“I had rode with Louie when I was in high school every Friday and Saturday night. If my parents wanted to know where I was at, they’d called the PD because I was with Louie,” he said. “He taught me how to deal with people, how to talk to people, how to respect ’em, Louie had a saying I lived with. He said, ‘You can talk a man to jail in five minutes or you can fight him to jail in two.’ But, he said that fighting’s hard on the bones and clothes. Louie was a wise man. He knew how to deal with people.”

Police Chief

Through the years, Mahan worked for several different law enforcement agencies, including the Stephens County Sheriff’s Office (twice), the Olney Police Department (part-time) and the Breckenridge Police Department. During a stint in the oil field business working for his dad, he also worked in an unpaid position for the District Attorney’s office as an investigator for cases in Young and Stephens counties.

In October 1998, he accepted the offer to be the Police Chief for the Breckenridge Police Department.

Never take it personal

Mahan said the number one thing he’s learned as a police officer over the years is to never take anything personal, and that’s the advice he would give to a new police officer.

“Never take a damn thing personal,” he said. “Remember that they’re (mad) at the uniform, not the officer. As long as you’re doing the right thing, they’re (mad) at the uniform. If you’re doing the wrong thing, they’re mad at you. But if you’re doing the right thing and you can prove you’re in the right, they’re going to be mad at the uniform, but they won’t be mad at you.

The Breckenridge Fine Arts Center featured a display dedicated to Larry Mahan for his recent retirement party. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

“I have never, in this job, taken anything personal,” he continued. “You’ve got to realize these people are upset and what you do is a reflection of you and your department. You have to do something to keep them calm and realize that whatever they say or do is an emotional response and not directed to you personally. If you take that personal, it’ll eat you up.”

Mahan said he’s had officers write a speeding ticket and then get mad because they didn’t think the judge fined the driver enough. “I didn’t care,” he said. “I’d write a speeding ticket; I’d turn it in (and) it’s gone. I forgot about it. Of course, I never was a speeding ticket type of guy anyway.”

Mahan said he doesn’t worry about the fines that judges assess or even if people he arrests are given probation for their crimes.

“My thoughts on probation are this – and I’ve told every DA (District Attorney) this, and I’ve gone through a lot of DAs – I don’t care if you give everybody in that jail probation,” he said. “Number one, if they make it, they’ll be productive members of society and that’s what we want. Number two, if they don’t make it, they’ll be back. And so I don’t care … give everybody a chance. But if they don’t take the chance, they’ll be back.”

However, Mahan did admit that some cases test his tolerance level. “Now, when I arrest somebody for aggravated sexual assault of a child (and they get probation), I get a little iffy about that,” he said.

Mahan said it’s never been a thrill to put somebody in jail. He said he had an old sergeant, J.B. Garvin, tell him one time that arresting somebody is the last resort.

“Jail is the last resort,” Mahan said. “Try to help before we jail ’em.”

Tragedies

Having to deal with the tragedy and chaos at accidents and crime scenes is part of police work, and Mahan said officers have to keep their emotions in check in order to do their jobs. He said his wife tells him, he does not “emote.” In other words, he doesn’t show emotion.

“I’m sorry for that,” he said. “But that’s been my life. I can’t show emotion, because, whether I’m talking to the victim of child sexual abuse who’s 5 years old, or if I’m talking to the (SOB) that did it, I can’t show emotions because I’ve got to look at the facts. And that’s all I’ve ever cared about … what actually happened.”

Mahan said the first fatal car accident he ever saw was when he was in high school riding with Hall. The crash was out on the Wayland Highway and involved a boy and girl about his age. He said the girl was dead at the scene and the boy, who was loaded into an ambulance, died later.

It was a private ambulance service, and the police chief asked him if he could drive the ambulance back to town. “I said yes. (It) ended up that I didn’t have to, (but) I was asked and volunteered,” Mahan said. “I guess that’s then when I realized that you have to detach. Unfortunately, you have to detach yourself from the situation. It’s not easy to do.”

Mahan said there’s not really any way to tell a young officer about how to deal with those types of situations unless they’re on the scene with him. He said each situation is fluid and has to be dealt with differently.

“It’s kind of hard for me because I know how I deal with it and I don’t know how to tell somebody else to deal with that,” he said. “So you say, ‘Watch. I may not do it right, but next time I’ll do something different. And you’ve got to take control and have control of the situation and sometimes it’s hard.’”

Mahan said that after dealing with a situation like a bad accident, officers have to learn put it behind them emotionally. They have to accept that bad things happen.

“If you go to a bad accident, you can’t go home and get drunk,” he said. “That don’t work. Never has worked. I never did it; I never relied on alcohol to forget. Because you can’t forget. I don’t give a damn how much whiskey you drink, you’re not going to forget. All it’s going to do is make you feel bad tomorrow and (you) still remember it. So I don’t rely on that.

“The only thing I can rely on, is everything is done for a reason,” Mahan continued. “Everything happens for a reason. We may not always understand them, but they happen for a reason.”

Respect

Another important thing Mahan said he has learned from being a police officer the last 40 years is to show people respect and to listen to them.

“You’ve got to be able to that,” he said. “And not apologize to them, but empathize with them and listen to them. Say, ‘Yeah man, I know where you’re coming from.’ And that reverts back to what Louie told me, ‘talk ’em to jail.’ And the main thing is listen to ’em. People want to be heard. That’s what they want. And you’ve got to give them an ear. And I think that’s what I was for a lot of people.

“They (people) would come in and talk to me about anything,” Mahan said. “And they knew … it’s in confidence, it’s in trust. Unless I sit down and take a statement from you, it’s not going anyplace.”

As an example of treating people with respect, Mahan told this story:

“That’s the thing, if you can save face. I arrested a guy one time out here at Woodland Village. He was wanted for aggravated sexual assault of child out of South Texas. And I knew he was out there. He was standing out there with his kids and all this.

I went home and I got my personal pickup, and I drove out there. And I pulled in, and I said, ‘Which apartment is so and so’s?’ And he told me, ‘I think it’s around here.’ And I said, ‘Are you so and so?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ I got out of the truck and I said, ‘I got a warrant for you,’ and I said ‘I’m chief deputy sheriff here.’ I said, ‘You’re under arrest.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to put the handcuffs on in front of your kids. You get the kids taken care of and you come back and you get in this truck, and you and me’ll drive out of here like men.’ And he did.

Now that’s backfired on me before, but the fact is, he got his kids taken care and he came down and he got in the truck with me. He saved face. As far as them kids knew, we was friends and he was going with me. I don’t care what anybody thinks as long as the job gets done, and if you can do it without embarrassing or belittling a person, then that’s the way you got to do it.”

Small town police work

Mahan said while there are definitely differences between small town policing and big city policing, they both have the same kinds of problems and crimes.

Retired Breckenridge Police Chief Larry Mahan opens cards from guests at his retirement party in January. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

“We have the same things they have in Dallas; they just have it a lot more often,” he said. “But in Dallas if you get in a bind, and you call for backup they come from all over the city. Here if you get in a bind, and you call for backup, they come out of bed. That’s what they can’t comprehend in the big city, is that, you’re out here by yourself. If you’re on night shift there’s two of you out there. If something happens that two of you can’t handle, backup’s gotta come out of bed.”

Mahan says most of the problems in Breckenridge are caused by just a small percentage of the population. “We’ve got good people in this town. We’ve got one percent of our community that causes 99 percent of our problems,” he said.

Mahan then went on to explain that when police officers encounter the other 99 percent of the citizens, they’re getting a speeding ticket, their house has been broken into, they were involved in an automobile accident or there’s a tragedy in their life. The officers are meeting them at the worst time, and he said he’s had to remind officers of that.

“We’ve got good people in this town, great people,” he said. “It’s just like the students at school, the teacher has good students, and they have their bad students. And guess who they spend more time dealing with.”

Changes over the years

Mahan has seen a lot of changes in the laws in Texas and law enforcement since he started.

For example, he said the domestic abuse laws passed during late 1980s are much more effective now because they can now arrest someone at the scene of a domestic violence call. He said they now also have protection orders which have helped.

“Now we have teeth,” he said. “If she’s beat up, he’s going to jail. If he’s beat up, she’s going to jail. You got to remember that law didn’t go into effect until 1987. Prior to that, all we could do was go to a scene and if she had the hell beat out of her, we could say, ‘Do you want to file charges?’ Well, … no she don’t want to file charges, because if she does, it’s going to be even worse. We couldn’t do anything.”

Mahan said while the change has had a big effect on officers being able to diffuse a domestic violence call, the laws haven’t really decreased the amount of calls. But at least now they are able to take action and stop it for that period of time, he said.

“You see we never had any of that stuff years ago,” Mahan said. “Years ago if he went to jail for PI (public intoxication) after beating her, the next day he went home. And there was nothing to keep him away from her because that’s his home, that’s her home.”

Community’s biggest problem

Mahan said that since he became a police officer, drugs have become the biggest problem for communities. Mahan said nearly everything they deal with is related to drugs and or alcohol, or a combination the two.

“It’s going to fall back on dope,” he said. “When I started, marijuana was a big thing. But it’s not that big anymore. Meth is a problem. Meth is a problem that is statewide, nationwide.”

“Our thefts are for drugs,” he said. “Our assaults, a lot of times, are over drugs, are caused by alcohol or the drugs. If we didn’t have drugs, this place would be policed with four police officers, if there were no such thing as drugs.”

However, he said he was talking to the District Attorney recently and drug cases are down this year. He said he attributes the drop to more education for young people.

Challenges

Retired Breckenridge Police Chief Larry Mahan visits with family and guests at his retirement ceremony in January at the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

Mahan said sometimes it can be tough being police chief in small community like Breckenridge when emotions in the community are running high and he’s the one that has to make sure the defendant’s legal rights are protected as well as the victim’s.

“But you’ve got to stand up there in front of these people and explain to them that we have a Constitution, we have a Bill of Rights. And everybody is entitled to that,” he said.

Mahan held up his smart phone with a copy of the United States Constitution displayed on the screen and said, “Since there’s been an iPhone, or since there’s been a smart phone, this has been on my phone. This is the Constitution. And it is says right there, ‘Constitution of the United States.’ And I have kept this on my phone, and, before that, I kept a paper copy of it.”

Mahan said everyone is entitled to the rights provided for in the Constitution and that law enforcement officers have to remember that, no matter what.

“Yeah, I’d like to string him up, too,” he said. “But, you know what? I can’t let that happen, because, if I did, then that’s putting me on that same level. And I can’t be on that level.”

Mahan said people get emotionally involved and he understands where their emotion comes from.

“Probably, if I wasn’t doing this job, I might be out there with them,” he said. Then, tapping forcefully on his desk for emphasis, he said, “But I know that everybody has those rights. I don’t care what they did. It’s not fun, but we’re going to run the course.”

Accomplishments

When asked what he thinks his biggest accomplishment as police chief has been, Mahan said it was trying to bring professionalism to the Breckenridge Police Department.

“We’ve gone from when I started, we had two small rooms in that city hall. We had a little bitty room that was the secretary and the investigator, and the squad room, and one little bitty one that was the chief’s office. We gone from that to this,” he said, referring to the current Law Enforcement Center and Jail.

“But this facility is one of them,” he said, looking back at his accomplishments. “The fact that when I came to work, we had four cars in the department. Everybody had to share cars, and they lasted about two years, at the most. A brand new car was smooth wore out in two years. And cars now, where it only runs eight or 12 hours, four or five days a week as opposed to 24/7. I think that was an advancement.”

Going forward

Mahan said he’s not sure what he’s going to in his retirement. He said he might get a job at Tractor Supply, or Gebos or something like that.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going to take the month of February off, and my wife has a list. Number one on my list is clean my cotton-pickin’ garage. But I don’t know what I’m going to do. I gotta do something. You know, I have not never been without a job in over 40 years … and it’s strange because I always knew I had a job and this is my job, and now I don’t got one.”

Larry Mahan had a chance to visit with friends, family, co-workers and others at his retirement party at the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center in January. His last day as Breckenridge Police Chief was Jan. 31. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

 

Story by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: When Larry Mahan started his law enforcement career, the Stephens County Jail was on the fourth floor of the courthouse. He recently revisited the old jail, reminiscing about his early days as an officer. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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