As Rank And File Revolt, Hartford Police Chief Search A Flop

Hartford — The long-term leadership of the town’s police department remains in flux after another fruitless search for a police chief came to a close. Meanwhile, the department’s employees formally indicated that they didn’t support the public safety director who oversaw the department for more than a year.

Town officials say the public safety director position, which was held by Fire Chief Steve Locke, has been eliminated and that Locke, who had no police experience, has returned to managing just the fire department, but police union officials expressed doubt about the official reason given for the move.

The developments are the latest indication of divisions within the town about the best way to move the emergency service department forward.

Those divisions were brought into sharp relief earlier this month, when the Hartford Police Union members held a vote of no confidence in Locke as public safety director.

Such a vote is a formal means by which members of an organization show that they no longer support a leader.

Locke said that in the weeks before the Oct. 2 vote, he heard no concerns about his ability to lead and that the union’s action caught him completely off guard.

“I really don’t know what to make of it,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “Had this occurred six months ago, or there was some dialogue that preempted it, I might have known. I’m confused.”

No Confidence

Detective Sgt. Michael Tkac, president of the police union, said he didn’t want to talk in detail about the issues with Locke, but that there were “several instances” in which Locke had acted in a way that raised concerns among union members.

The union represents about 30 police officers and support staff; Tkac said the vote was unanimous among those who attended a meeting on the night of Oct. 2. He said a majority of members were present and that members who did not attend also expressed support for the no-confidence vote.

The public safety director position was created to oversee both the police and fire departments in early 2013. Locke, the only person to hold the post, joined the fire department in the early 1990s and rose through the ranks before becoming fire chief in 2008.

He has never been a police officer, something that Tkac said has been an issue.

“They’re two unique sets of animals,” Tkac said.

On Oct. 3, the day after the vote, the union sent a letter to Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg and the Selectboard outlining the specific concerns about Locke, but Tkac declined to share the letter with the Valley News.

Rieseberg, who said he would release the letter with approval from the town attorney, said he didn’t understand the union’s issues with Locke, or the motivation for the vote.

“It doesn’t have much in the way of specifics,” he said. “I’ve asked them to elaborate on their concerns.”

Fire Lt. Chris Dube, president of the Hartford Career Firefighters Association, said the concerns about Locke are isolated to the police side of the emergency service department.

“Currently, we haven’t really had any pressing controversies between Chief Locke and/or the town as a whole to the extent we would have to have a vote like that,” Dube, a 23-year department veteran, said.

Rieseberg said that the police union’s concerns about Locke were misplaced, because the public safety director position was never intended to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the department.

“He gave no orders,” Rieseberg said. “He didn’t direct staff. He didn’t make policy within the department.”

When he took on the role in 2013, Locke expressed broad goals for the department, such as moving toward accreditation and being more community-friendly.

“He was to provide support for things like budget allocation,” Rieseberg said. “He had no, and never had any, input into the law enforcement operations.”

Those decisions have instead been made by the department’s two deputy chiefs, Brad Vail and Leonard Roberts.

“I don’t understand how they could have a vote of no confidence in someone who didn’t really have a lot to do with what they were doing,” Rieseberg said.

Tkac said that Rieseberg has been “very responsive” to the letter and that there are plans to have a dialogue about the union’s concerns.

Experiment Over

The concerns about Locke’s role as public safety director may be less pressing, however, because Locke no longer holds that position, Rieseberg said.

According to Rieseberg, Locke returned to his duties as full-time fire chief on Sept. 28, four days before the no-confidence vote, a change that long had been planned to coincide with the end of a search for a new police chief. While the search formally ended on Oct. 6, four days after the union vote, the position remains unfilled.

“It was made very, very, very clear on multiple occasions that this was a one-year experiment that culminated with the end of the search,” Rieseberg said.

But Tkac said that union members learned about the switch in Locke’s duties only after their vote, and suggested that the move could have been instituted retroactively to diffuse any tension with the police union.

If the union knew Locke was not in charge, the vote may not have gone forward, he said.

“We did not know,” Tkac said.

Rieseberg, however, said that both Vail and Roberts, who are not members of the union, were informed of the change after Sept. 28, but before the union took its vote on Oct. 2.

When the public safety director position was first created in February 2013, Rieseberg said that it would likely be a “one- to two-year exercise.”

Even then, critics from within and outside of the department said they didn’t feel a person without police experience could fill the role, highlighting an inter-service rivalry that has traditionally been a part of the culture of police and firefighters across the country.

In January, the Selectboard officially voted to restore the police chief position in the fiscal year 2015 budget, which took effect on July 1.

At the time, town leaders expected that the ongoing search for a new police chief would be completed in the summer or early fall, clearing the way for Locke to return to his duties as fire chief.

Rieseberg said he considered Locke’s stint as public safety director a success.

Locke was hired, he said, to cover certain duties while the town searched for a permanent police chief; to save about $100,000 in a budget year that had been strained by a dramatic increase in health care costs; and to give the police department time to “refocus” after being subjected to a series of lawsuits, including one filed by Wayne Burwell, a former Wilder resident who in 2010 was pepper-sprayed and struck repeatedly with a baton by Hartford police responding to an erroneous burglary report at his home.

Rieseberg said Locke accomplished all three objectives.

“It went as hoped,” he said.

Hiring Woes

Glenn Cutting, a former Hartford selectman who currently lives in Sunapee, ended a six-year stint in the post of police chief in March 2012, and was chief during the Burwell incident.

Cutting said Hartford has drawn a reputation as an unwelcome place for police administrators, in part because of Rieseberg’s push to run the department with a public safety director.

“When he came up with the idea to put the fire chief in charge of the police station, that sent a very poor signal across the region,” Cutting said.

The town’s inability to hire a new police chief has negatively impacted the department’s ability to function, according to Tkac.

The search, conducted by a seven-member panel, got off to a shaky start when a round of advertisements produced only 28 applicants expressing interest in the position by a July deadline. At the time, Rieseberg said it was “a little bit less than what we are accustomed to,” but called it a “good number.”

Two of the top six candidates withdrew from the process after being invited to participate in a two-day assessment.

After the assessment for the four remaining candidates, the panel recommended two for possible hiring. Both of those candidates declined the position, according to Rieseberg.

He said in the statement that the other two finalists expressed a desire to take the post, but were not hired because the panel had not recommended them.

Rieseberg said he doubted the public safety director position scared away viable applicants, noting that the top two candidates chosen by the panel had served as public safety directors themselves in their careers.

“If anybody was paying attention to local affairs, they would have known it was an experiment,” he said.

He said that all candidates who went through the assessment process were shown an organizational flowchart that included the restored police chief position, and did not include the public safety director.

Cutting pointed to recent successful searches in other towns as evidence that the problem is unique to Hartford.

For example, in August, Windsor successfully hired William Sampson, of Florida, from a pool of 50 candidates for a job that pays about $80,000, and in April, Hanover announced the hiring of Charlie Dennis, of North Carolina, from a pool of 70 candidates vying for a $105,000 job.

The Hartford position was budgeted at up to $95,600 plus benefits, and Cutting was earning $110,000 at the end of his tenure.

“You have a lot of good police leaders in the Upper Valley,” Cutting said. “Why aren’t they applying?”

Rieseberg said that the concerns he heard from candidates had more to do with the region, and less with anything unique to Hartford.

“It’s cold in Vermont,” he said. “A lot of senior officials nearing the end of their careers are thinking of warmer climates.”

Others, he said, were concerned that their spouses wouldn’t be able to find work in the area, or about Vermont’s state income tax.

This is the second failed search for a police chief since Cutting left the post, Rieseberg said. There were also two unsuccessful searches prior to Cutting’s hiring.

Rieseberg said that he felt the town’s search process was fundamentally sound, but that the next search would likely rely less on national advertising and more on targeted recruitment of identified candidates from the region.

A timetable has not yet been set, but Rieseberg said he hoped to move the process forward this fall.

From The Valley News