Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison says her impending exit from the department’s top spot was one of the worst kept secrets in town.
Morrison made her plan for a short tenure clear when she was hired in July 2013 and even gave former town manager Dawn Francis a firm Aug. 1 exit date more than a year ago.
After a nearly three-decade policing career, Morrison, 49, said the feather in her cap would be the successful execution of a succession plan she and two Colchester Police Department lieutenants have crafted together.
“I was brought in here for a very specific purpose: to build some very strong organizational structure, revamp all policies and procedures and basically to breathe a big, strong breath of fresh air into this place,” Morrison said.
“I am very confident this department is going to flourish without me.”
The chief wouldn’t say which of the two lieutenants she’s recommending take her place, but noted both Lt. Doug Allen and Lt. Jeff Barton have spent more than 30 years with CPD and would be well-prepared to lead.
The decision will ultimately fall to new town manager Aaron Frank. He is expected to present his pick to the selectboard for confirmation within the next couple months, just as Francis did with Morrison five years ago.
Her predecessor, Chuck Kirker, had been chief for a whopping 34 years when he announced his retirement — even more noteworthy considering the local department has only existed for 50 years.
So, many were surprised when Francis, who had just been hired herself, bucked the expected internal candidates and selected someone from outside the town.
Morrison graduated from George Washington University in 1990 with a journalism and criminal justice dual degree and was hired by the Burlington Police Department the same year. She stayed put until the Colchester job opened up 23 years later.
She said Kirker’s extremely long tenure had “stifled the opportunity for an updraft” at CPD and prevented the typical promotion pattern from playing out. Colchester cops with 25 years of experience, for
example, therefore boast a lower rank than they might in a different department, she said.
“Now, five years later, we’re still there,” Morrison said. “If I do not step aside, we have the same stagnation that we were struggling with before.”
Scandal enveloped the department just over a year after Morrison assumed her leadership role, when federal authorities arrested former CPD detective Tyler Kinney. He was later sentenced to four years in prison for stealing guns and drugs from the department’s evidence locker in 2013 and 2014. The story gained national media coverage.
In a 2014 statement, Morrison called the incident “the darkest day in CPD’s history.” In an interview last month, she said her department is stronger for it.
“The crisis that came our way caused us to shift priorities and re-triage,” Morrison said. “In the process, [we] demonstrated transparency and accountability to the public.”
Dedicated data-keeping and regional collaboration have defined Morrison’s tenure at CPD. The former was clearly on display during a multi-department recruitment effort she helped run last summer, with officers from across the county “pitching” their organization to applicants.
And Morrison’s improved call logging system helped identify a troubling rise in mental health calls and suicide attempts in Colchester last year. Soon after, CPD and other area departments announced they were participating in an embedded social worker program to better serve citizens in need. The effort went live on April 30.
“I don’t start things and not finish them,” Morrison said. “That’s something that I’ve always taken pride in … I’m pretty hard-charging and hold myself to a high standard.”
Morrison had 100 days left at CPD when she spoke with the Sun. She still wasn’t sure what the next chapter of her professional life would hold and promised she’s far from committed to a new job. Her exit coincides with becoming an empty nester, she remarked with a sad laugh, so she’s not necessarily opposed to leaving the region.
She hopes to put her skills to work in some sort of “helping” industry for at least 10 more years. Still, the thought of leaving policing prompts more than a little trepidation — it’s part of her identity, she said.
“Staying would be the easy choice,” Morrison said. “I’ve done the hard work.”