Striving to serve

After being shot, Chapin’s Chief Helmich hopes to get back to patroling this winter

By Maria Ferraro

Just weeks after becoming Chapin Police Chief in January of this year, Steve Helmich was shot in the line of duty.

“It’s a crazy thing to think about. I had two Middle East deployments, one to Iraq, one to Egypt … but almost got shot to death half an hour from where I grew up,” Helmich reveals.

Helmich grew up and went to school in Jacksonville. The year after graduating from Jacksonville High School, he joined the Illinois National Guard and served full-time for 20 years before retiring on Nov. 30. He spent 16 years in human resources and the last four years as assistant inspector general for the Illinois National Guard inspector general’s office. The day after his retirement from the Illinois National Guard, Helmich started a job as an investigator with the Office of the Executive Inspector General for Agencies of the Illinois Governor.

He began his work in law enforcement in 2015, when he joined the Virginia Police Department which sent him through the police academy. Since then, he has worked as a part-time patrol officer for Virginia, South Jacksonville and then Chapin — where he became a sergeant, and then police chief in January of 2022.

Helmich says, “I try to maintain training and management skills because even though the places I work are smaller agencies, people expect the same level of service from that person as someone who does it 40 hours a week. We have to endeavor to maintain a professional education and training and proficiency in the job.”

As a small-town police chief, Helmich, along with management and office responsibility, wears a uniform and works patrols. The night he got shot was a normal evening. He came to work in full uniform and tossed an orange dog leash he had bought that day into the front seat of the police car. He planned to spend the evening catching up on paperwork in the office.

However, he heard a call on the radio from a Meredosia officer who had pulled over a guy for a simple traffic stop and was now in pursuit of the suspect. The suspect had fled and appeared to be intoxicated; he also had a gun on the floorboard of his truck. Helmich confirmed over the radio that the officer wanted assistance, then headed toward Meredosia.

“When we’re in smaller areas, everybody [between departments] has to be a team. Out here in the west part of the county it’s kind of a collaborative effort, not just with police, but with fire and rescue,” Helmich adds.

The pursuit continued through other small towns and ended back in Meredosia when Helmich reached the town. The driver continued to try to evade the Meredosia officer by driving through a gas station parking lot, some grass and a church parking lot. This caused the Meredosia officer to get turned around and put Helmich in the lead of the pursuit.

The pursuit continued with the suspect driving into a cornfield, then getting back on the paved road, heading through a neighborhood in Griggsville, through Pike county, into Brown county until the suspect crashed into a guard rail and spun his Chevy Silverado out at an intersection on Highway 107.

By this time, multiple other police vehicles had joined the pursuit. The police exited their vehicles and started giving instruction to the driver, who exited his vehicle and began shooting at Helmich. They exchanged gunfire, and Helmich was shot twice. One bullet hit the abdomen below his vest; the other shot entered and exited his leg, fracturing his femur and causing Helmich to fall.

Another officer dragged Helmich to his car and grabbed the dog leash Helmich had tossed in the front seat. He cinched it tight like a tourniquet around his leg, which was gushing with blood.

A few minutes later another police officer arrived with a real tourniquet, but Helmich remarked that the dog leash “saved me from bleeding to death.”

In addition to the bullet wounds and fragments, and fractured femur, Helmich had a chemical burn from the bullet going through his phone as it exited and the lithium battery leaking onto his leg.

Helmich is still on medical leave and is limited to working in the office. Although the bad parts of the job, like officers getting shot, is mostly what is heard and talked about in national news, Helmich remarks that, “the vast majority, especially in this area of a police officer’s day, is doing positive things … helping to change a tire, talking to people at the gas station … someone loses their dog and you help them find it. But the negative stuff is what sells and attracts attention.”

Although some expected Helmich to retire after getting shot, Helmich hopes to return to patrol in late winter or early spring 2023. He adds that the incident, “has caused me to be more confident than I ever was that I definitely like being in public service. I like being in law enforcement and as long as I’m physically able to do it, I want to do it.”

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