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As a child growing up in Virginia, a few chance encounters made Joe Montminy Jr. want to be a policeman.

One involved him and his mother crossing paths with a local drunk. The other had them as nearby witnesses to a police foot chase.

“In both cases, when the police officer showed up, I felt safe and my mother felt safe,” Montminy said. “I just remember thinking, that’s pretty cool, that’s something I want to do.”

Half a century later, making people feel safe is the only profession Montminy will ever know — 38 years after joining the Prince George’s County police department as a cadet straight out of high school, Montminy, 56, retired Friday from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office as it’s chief assistant sheriff and the only officer in its history to achieve the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Along the way, Montminy has worked under four county sheriffs as a patrolman, detective and SWAT team member, become a polygraph examiner, attended sniper school, served as the agency’s chief legislative liaison and earned a reputation as an officer whose only interest was doing the job right.

Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) called Montminy, whom he worked alongside in the 1980s and early ’90s as a county officer and made his second-in-command upon being elected in 2006, “the most knowledgeable guy in the agency.”

“I’ve been friends with Joe for a lot of years and working with him before and to come back and work with him, he’s been exceptional and a good friend to me,” Coffey said. “Nobody can say anything wrong about Joe when it comes to integrity. When you have somebody you can trust, who does the right things for the right reasons, those are the kind of people that are a pleasure to work with.”

“Joe Montminy personifies what is best about law enforcement — dedicated, obviously, smart beyond belief and a man who just always wanted to do the right thing,” Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) said. “In all the years that I’ve been dealing with the sheriff’s office, I certainly have not met a better detective, supervisor, police officer, period.”

During his first stint as a county prosecutor in the mid-1990s, Covington said Montminy “taught me a whole lot. As prosecutors, people may not think we learn from the police, but we absolutely do.”

“It’s a great day for him, but a sad day for the sheriff’s office and the county as a whole because he’s been what’s best about the sheriff’s office for 30 years now,” Covington said.

Charles County Deputy State’s Attorney Jerome R. Spencer, who’s been a county prosecutor since 1998, called Montminy “the glue of the sheriff’s office since I’ve been here.”

“Col. Montminy was always the person to turn to to get things done,” Spencer said. “He was always interested in results, and he always got his results.”

Montminy and his wife plan to move from Bel Alton to Hanover, Pa., just north of the state line, where they will be closer to their two sons and grandchildren. The couple are having their retirement home built, and Montminy, an avid cyclist and woodworker, intends to turn its unfinished basement into his personal workshop.

“That gives me something else to do besides [policing], which is the only thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

Within days of his high school graduation, Montminy started his career in Prince George’s County as a police cadet making $6,500 a year. He attended the department’s police academy and worked the Oxon Hill district until 1980, when he came to Charles County as a patrol officer.

Montminy spent three years in patrol before becoming a detective, a role he had never previously considered until he witnessed a detective walk a prisoner into an interrogation room and come out minutes later with a confession.

“I got to figure out how to do that,” he thought.

Montminy eventually became the captain in charge of the agency’s criminal investigations division. He described his years as a detective, catching criminals and helping victims find justice, as the most fulfilling of his career.

“A lot of long hours, a lot of hard work, but it was very rewarding,” he said. “There’s nothing I like more than going into a room and coming out with the truth. There’s nothing that beats a confession in police work. When you convince the bad guy to tell the truth, it makes it easier on everyone else.”

In 1996, he transferred back to the patrol division as its commander before being promoted again by then-Sheriff Frederick E. Davis to be his executive assistant.

Montminy remained in that position until Coffey’s election in 2006. One of only two officers to remain from Davis’ command staff, Montminy immediately was promoted to major and assistant sheriff.

“That meant a lot to me because I had a lot of trust in Joe and I knew he was about one thing and that was the agency,” Coffey said. “To me it was a win-win for the agency and me as well because he knew everything about the agency.”

This past January, the sheriff made Montminy the first lieutenant colonel in department history, an overdue recognition the sheriff said was delayed by budgetary constraints.

“I was disappointed not to be able to do it sooner,” Coffey said, adding that he’ll hold off on naming Montminy’s replacement until finances improve. “I’m really proud that he’s walking out with that lieutenant colonel badge.”

“The rank had existed in our manual, but no one had ever achieved it, so it was very much an honor and a privilege. Very humbling,” Montminy said.

Yet despite all the promotions, accolades and honors, Montminy never lost sight of what it was that made him want to be a cop in the first place — the chance to help people.

“I know it sounds really corny, but that’s what we do,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun and a great career. I don’t regret any of it. I never thought I’d be here this long. I like to think I left the place better than I found it and did the right thing.”

jnewman@somdnews.com