Thursday, August 27th will mark a milestone in the story of Mesquite. The longest continuously serving police officer in the community’s history will retire. Mike Van Houten was one of the first officers hired in 1987 when Mesquite organized its own police department, after incorporating in 1984. To this day, Van Houten is the only police officer to spend his entire law enforcement career in Mesquite.
“When I first went to work in Mesquite, there was nothing north of the freeway except a garbage dump and an animal pit,” Van Houten said. His most common call in those days was a deer or big horn sheep in the middle of Mesquite Boulevard. “I averaged about one call a week when I first started, compare to over 30 calls a day now.”
Van Houten got to the job in a circuitous way. As a youth Van Houten grew up in the Southern California city of Beaumont, where he helped his father with his glass installation business. Working with his dad resulting in helping work on the new Palm Springs homes of celebrities such as Sonny and Cher, Bob Hope and Red Skelton.
His parents then moved to Central, Utah, which is just north of St. George, to fill a dream of being on the land. Van Houten soon left for an LDS mission and spent two years in the Philippine Island of Mindanao. Mindanao at that time was in the middle of an insurgency by communist guerrillas. “I loved the country and the people but it was a tough time for the country,” said Van Houten.
When he returned home he went to work in St. George for Moore Business Forms. In the process he became friends with a patrol officer named Marion Stratton. “He took me for a ride-a-long and I said I can do this,” Van Houten recalled. Stratton is now the Chief of Police in St. George.
Motivated to a career in law enforcement, Van Houten paid his own way through the Utah police academy and became a reserve deputy for Washington County – at least for a few months. Mesquite was building a police department, and Van Houten was hired.
Van Houten recalled that “My first chief was Arvey Kelly, and the first assignment he gave me was to visit all the widows in town and see if they needed anything,” The department then totaled just four officers with two shifts.
Some of the cases and events that stick with Van Houten to this day are the time he responded to a call of a father trying to run over his son-in-law on I-15, “That happened when I had been on the job for just three days.”
Van Houten also responded to a call about a horse being left deserted in what is now the parking lot of Smith’s. “What I found was a guy so drunk he was laying on the ground passed out and laying on the reins.”
Many calls were more serious. In May of 2005, the call came that a person was trying to set fire to his room at the Oasis Casino. When officers responded the individual fired shots through the wall narrowly missing the police. Van Houten recalled that “I was the team leader of the SWAT Team, so I took the lead by jumping through the window of the room and throwing a flash bang.” Van Houten found a young 23-year-old man barricaded with mattress pads. As they approached the man killed himself.
After 28 years in a small town, Van Houten has developed a philosophy about police work. “We write tickets because they need to be written, not because we can,” Van Houten said thinking about the daily work of an officer. He also emphasized the importance of community relations.
One of the things Van Houten is most proud of is his many years with the D.A.R.E program in schools, and the many community projects he worked on. Recently Van Houten met a new corrections officer just hired by Mesquite. After realizing he had seen him before the new officer told him that Van Houten had been in his classroom for prevention program years ago.
Van Houten is the proud husband of Robyn, and father of three sons, Casen, Bryson and Adison, all of whom went through Mesquite schools. In retirement, Van Houten plans to stay in Mesquite, continue working on his hobby of fixing up collector cars and spending time working on a friend’s ranch.
When asked what his philosophy of life is he replied “Go and do, don’t sit and stew.”