GREENFIELD — It was back when computers had just five megabytes of memory. Sometime in the 1980s. The first one the sheriff’s department bought was a bulky chunk of hardware officers placed on a tabletop, and no one really knew how to use it or what a difference the device would make in the law enforcement field.
Except Bill Applegate, his friends said.
A longtime police investigator-turned-technology specialist, Applegate is credited by his colleagues as the man who led the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department into the digital era, paving the way for technological advancements at the department that made tracking criminals easier and kept officers safe on the streets.
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Applegate, who served more than three decades at the department, died Wednesday after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 60.
Applegate began his career in law enforcement in the 1970s and worked locally for both the Fortville Police Department and the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, where he kept an office until his death.
Applegate’s retirement from law enforcement in 2011 was an easy transition for his colleagues — because he never really left. After retiring, Applegate was immediately hired to work for the county’s IT department and oversaw the technology systems he helped create from the same office he’d enjoyed for years.
His battle with cancer kept him away from work for most of the last year, but he helped whenever he could, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said.
Police leaders say the major contributions to local law enforcement that Applegate made were behind the scenes but immeasurably important. He was a self-taught wealth of technical knowledge, a straight-forward speaker and the guy everyone went to with questions.
Applegate grew up near Muncie and graduated from Daleville High School in 1973.
He took a job with the Chesterfield Police Department in 1974 when he was just 18. He left law enforcement briefly for a stint working with a paper company in his hometown but still felt called to serve in law enforcement. He accepted a position at the Fortville Police Department a few years later.
In February 1978, Applegate became a jailer at the sheriff’s department before climbing the ranks, becoming the jail commander and then a detective.
Along the way, Applegate developed a knack for technology around the same time personal computers became popular and, eventually, essential for law enforcement, former Sheriff Nick Gulling said.
Applegate helped build the first radio dispatch center in the sheriff’s department in the 1980s, which was complete with video monitoring systems for the jail and security alarms.
Applegate pushed the county to computerize its records and helped create databases for case reports, inmate information, evidence and more, Gulling said. He shepherded the department through the process of installing computers and video records in all patrol cars and then helped to maintain them over the years, Gulling said.
“(Technology) blossomed over those 20 years, and it really changed the face of law enforcement,” Gulling said. “Bill led that, locally.”
At the time, most police departments didn’t have the money to hire additional personnel to handle IT, said Dave Ethridge, a former chief deputy for the sheriff’s department.
Ethridge joined the department in 1983 and met Applegate right as the push for technology began.
It was helpful to have someone with a law enforcement background leading the department’s digital push, Ethridge said. Applegate understood the day-to-day work a police officer did, and he knew which advancements would streamline that work and which would hinder their progress.
With files and information at their fingertips, officers could spend more hours patrolling rather than worry they needed to come back to the office to rifle through paperwork, Gulling said.
Every officer on the county’s payroll knew Applegate because he was the one who helped them get acquainted with the software systems the department uses. And if they ever had trouble, they knew he was the person to call, Gulling said.
County IT director Bernie Harris said hiring Applegate after his retirement from law enforcement was an easy choice. Because Applegate had been around the sheriff’s department for so long, he’d developed a familiarity with officers’ software systems that could not have been easily matched.
“Something that would take someone else an hour to fix, Bill could have done in a few minutes,” Harris said. “I’ve never come across anyone who has more knowledge than him.”
Applegate didn’t vacate his office in the basement of the sheriff’s department until the cancer forced him to, Shepherd said.
He kept working from home, though, Shepherd said. Earlier this month, he was able to fix a printer problem that stumped both sheriff’s department and IT personnel. Confused and frustrated, they called the only guy they knew could help, Shepherd said.
“… And I just sat back in my office and watched the mouse moving around the computer screen,” he said with a laugh, noting the county still relied on Applegate often. “Then he called me up, and ‘It’s done.’”
“Everyone knew Bill,” Gulling said, “and everyone liked Bill.”