By David DeRocco
For a guy who has earned a living being meticulously slow and methodical in the execution of his departmental duties, forensic investigator Hank Thorne could be on record as having experienced the shortest retirement in Hamilton Police Services history.
“I basically took the weekend off,” laughed Thorne when talking about the details surrounding his short-lived retirement from the force in 2006. “I retired on the Thursday and I started on the Monday with the SIU.”
The decision to move into the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) after nearly 33 years of policing was an easy one for Thorne, who had throughout his career always hoped to wind up with a position as a forensic investigator. Then again, the initial decision to pursue a career as a policeman was equally easy given the family influences Thorne had to inspire him as a teenager.
“I come from a family of police officers,” said Thorne, a lifelong resident of the Hamilton area. “My father was a policeman and my brother was a policeman and we all worked for the same police service. I decided early in my younger years I wanted to be a police officer.”
Thorne was only 17 years old when he walked into the building housing the old Hamilton Police Department to inquire about the process involved in joining the force. Much to his surprise and delight, Thorne was offered a job as a police cadet which he immediately accepted. He wound up finishing his high school diploma at night while completing his training as a cadet, and at age 21 he began his long career as a fulltime officer with Hamilton police.
The path to achieving his eventual rank of detective and moving onto his dream job as a forensics expert was fairly typical. Thorne started off patrolling his hometown streets of Hamilton, moved into a traffic unit and then spent time riding motorcycles. He eventually progressed into firearms and use-force training, teaching young officers tactics they could deploy to protect themselves in dangerous situations. It was a role that had a profound impact on both Thorne and, thankfully, many of the officers he had trained.
“I actually had a police officer come in to me one day and he said to me, ‘thank you.’ And I said ‘for what?’ And he said ‘what you taught me saved my life.’ It brought tears to my eyes just about. It was one of those important days on the job. I thought of all the teaching I had done, to have an officer come to me and say what you taught me saved my life, it just took me back. I was so happy that happened.”
Thorne was even happier when the opportunity finally opened up to move into the role of forensics investigator with the renamed Hamilton Police Services. Given the fact that forensics requires people who are patient, methodical and analytical, the job is not for everyone – but the need for those same skills was the primary reason Thorne was attracted to the position.
“It required meticulous work. I’ve always been good with that. It’s right down to the brass tacks of being on your hands and knees looking for hairs and tiny bits of evidence. It’s very detailed but also every rewarding, especially when you get the answers that you need. You don’t always get the answer but when you do, you get to convict people. I’ve convicted people on serious sexual assaults and homicides just because of the detailed work we’ve put into it. There’s nothing better.”
One of the areas of expertise Thorne developed in his six years as a forensic investigator with the force was with the identifying and matching of fingerprints, a competency that earned him the Thomas J. Fitzgerald Memorial Award for Excellence in Forensic Services in 2004. His reputation as a meticulous investigator with Hamilton Police Services was the primary reason the SIU came looking for him as he approached his retirement in 2006.
“They haunted me,” laughed Thorne, in reference to the SIU’s relentless attempts to get him to accept their offer of employment. “The attraction (to accepting) was probably because I started so early in police work that when I retired I was only 50 years old. I didn’t want to sit back in a chair and do nothing with the rest of my life. I wanted to carry on and still work, but only at a slower pace. As far as moving into the SIU it was basically patching over. I knew what I had to do and was fully confident in what I was doing because I already had six years with Hamilton Police Services being a forensic investigator. And the SIU is a part time thing, so it was kind of nice. I was still in policing, but what I do now is called ‘as needed.’ I get called out and go to work when there’s work to do.”
Moving into a role where his SIU responsibilities could potentially see him investigating former colleagues was of no real concern to Thorne, who believes today’s police officers understand the role the department plays in supporting rather than impeding the work of dedicated police officers.
“The transition has been very good, it’s worked really well. I feel that we’re respected because we have a job to do. The newer generation of policing, they understand what we’re all about. We’re not regarded as the bad guys. We’re regarded as being an entity that has to investigate the police. Given the politics of the day it’s just the way it is now. The SIU is there and they’re going to investigate whenever something happens with people being killed or seriously injured or sexually assaulted by police. We don’t find everybody guilty. We find reasons why they’re not guilty, and 95 percent of the time we find that what the police did was proper and we can attest to that.”
With no actual retirement in sight, SIU forensic investigator Hank Thorne is happy to be serving in a role he longed for nearly two-thirds of his career. As for the advice he’d give to young officers hoping to wind up in a similar dream role with the police, Thorne says there’s one unyielding principle required to be a successful police officer.
“To be honest. Basically just to be honest with yourself, and to work with integrity. Being part of the police service and being loyal to the police service is one of the most important things to remember.”