Colchester police dept. marks milestone

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Tazor, a member of CPD’s K-9 Unit, puts on a demonstration for the spectators Sunday with Cpl. Mike Akerlind. (Photo by Kyle St. Peter)

The Colchester Police Department rang in its golden anniversary in style this week, hosting a slew of community events to mark the milestone and recognize officers and civilians alike.

More than 250 residents flocked to the PD on a sunny Sunday afternoon for the main event, enjoying a K9 demonstration and building tours in between a presentation of the colors and prepared remarks.

During a Monday evening talk at the Colchester Historical Society, Chief Jennifer Morrison still sported a few of the customized temporary tattoos the department handed out the day prior.

“Things have changed a lot in the past 50 years,” Morrison said. “But really, the things that matter have stayed the same.”

In front of a packed crowd, she offered an abridged history of the local department officially formed on Aug. 8, 1967, her research supplemented by a few firsthand accounts of the early days at CPD.

In late March more than 50 years ago, Colchester voters approved $20,000 to establish their own department, setting off the search for “two men and a cruiser,” according to archived newspaper clippings.

From a field of up to 14 applicants, officials selected St. Johnsbury police Sgt. Ronald Smith to lead the charge, joined by one other officer and a $2,300 car. The second CPD chief, Chuck Kirker, was hired in 1970 and retired in 2013.

Keegan Lyman gets his photo taken with officers Gutierrez and Bitca. (Photo by Kyle St. Peter)

On Monday, Ron Tatro and Jim Lockwood, both hired in 1970, drew laughs from the crowd as they recalled former-Chief Smith largely choosing hires based on their weight and height to fit the uniforms he had on stash.

Fresh on the job, Tatro remembered flying down an icy road in an old cruiser responding to an accident with Smith. He controlled the vehicle, narrowly avoiding disaster, only to see Smith slip down the hill after his first step on the slick surface. 

The trio also discussed the difference between expectations of officers then and now and agreed the role of the community has morphed in the last 50 years, not necessarily for the better.

“I don’t think it really matters if you’re in a big city, or a small town or in a very rural area,” Morrison said. “The lack of connections in neighborhoods is really problematic … there is no more, ‘it takes a village.’”

A subsequent question-and-answer session focused almost exclusively on the department’s more recent years. Residents wondered how Morrison felt working in a male-dominated profession, why the PD didn’t take on more K9s and if anyone could explain why officers logged especially long tenures in Colchester.

The last one was easy to answer, Morrison said, pointing to an awards ceremony held at the Hampton Inn during the Colchester-Milton Rotary Club meeting last Wednesday. 

The Sept. 7 awards luncheon was the first of its kind in more than 15 years, Morrison said. Department leaders recognized several sworn and a few civilians for their especially valuable contributions.

One designation went to a half-dozen communications specialists, or dispatchers, who trained three new staffers while covering extra shifts during a period of short staffing earlier this year.

“[It’s nice] to be recognized because we are so behind the scenes, no one sees who we are,” said Candace Johnson, a longtime dispatcher in the department.

Others honored included Cpl. Edward Fournier who served on the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations from 2010-14 and Cpl. Michael Akerlind who stopped a bank robber and recovered thousands of stolen dollars in 2014.

Two community members pose with officer Victor Bitca, left, and Cpl. Stephen Gutierrez. (Photo by Kyle St. Peter)

For Detective Jack Lehneman, the recognition offered a chance to reflect on an instinctual decision he made during a house fire in 2014. With Sgt. James Roy, Lehneman pulled four occupants, including two sleeping children, to safety before fire personnel arrived.

“At the time, you don’t really think about it. You just act,” Lehneman said. “We don’t do it for the recognition; we do it because we hope there’s somebody out there that would do that for us.”

Back at the historical society, Morrison told the audience the dedication across many facets of the department is what makes Colchester special. 

“People who work at CPD are truly committed to this community,” she said. “This is not a place where people just come in to collect their paycheck; this is a place where people truly come to make a difference.”