CPD’s start: ‘Two men and a cruiser’

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A 1967 newspaper clipping heralds the founding of the Colchester Police Department. The documents are well-preserved in former town manager James Lowe's scrapbooks. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

A 1967 newspaper clipping heralds the founding of the Colchester Police Department. The documents are well-preserved in former town manager James Lowe’s scrapbooks. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

It was late-March 1967, and Colchester voters approved $20,000 to establish their own local police department.

Then-town manager James Lowe easily summarized the budding department’s needs: “Two men and a cruiser.”

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 cruiser, Smith was paid less than $7,500 annually and rented space in a building on Route 2A.

Such is the story today’s police chief, Jennifer Morrison, found told in a series of decades-old newspaper clippings, carefully preserved in Lowe’s personal scrapbooks.

Morrison chuckled as she read Lowe’s proclamation in her office last week, remarking the phrase might make for a catchy movie title. She found his books last year while searching for a CPD timeline at the Colchester Historical Society.

“We just didn’t know exactly what our birthday was,” Morrison said.

Morrison’s digging eventually confirmed the department officially assumed the town’s patrolling duties on Aug. 8, 1967, nearly 50 years ago.

And though they don’t plan to celebrate their golden anniversary on that particular day this summer, Morrison said the PD will host a town meet-and-greet event some time after Labor Day to mark the milestone.

The department has found several additional ways to commemorate its 50th, most notably with newly designed uniform patches.

For months, Morrison worked with designers to reimagine the piece. They settled on an hourglass shape, featuring a brightly colored town logo, the department’s founding date and the words “integrity and service,” two of the PD’s core values.

Morrison was eager to create an emblem that was meaningful and specific to the town and especially wanted to replace the generic state logo. She said the Colchester logo – which features figures running, biking and swimming – signifies a more approachable and action-oriented group of officers.

“We found this was much more forward looking and inviting,” Morrison said. “It was much more reflective of what the Colchester community is, as opposed to a very generic patch that most departments had some version of in the beginning.”

Morrison is also working with a company to design transparent window decals, which she hopes local businesses will sport, and customized “junior officer” stickers, among other things.

A redesigned badge for officers may be forthcoming later this year, Morrison said, noting the milestone provided a chance to take a second look at several department objects.

“Certainly when we approached conversations of a 50th anniversary, we saw this as an opportunity to redesign the very things that define us publicly,” she said.

Parsing through CPD history was new and familiar all at once for Morrison, who joined the department just three and a half years ago. Some specifics were unknown to her, she said, but the general course mirrored that taken by departments all over the state.

She’s continually sought the wisdom of her predecessor, longtime former-Chief Chuck Kirker, who was hired as the department’s fourth full-time officer in 1970 and retired in 2013.

Two of Kirker’s hires, Sgt. Jeff Bean and Cpl. Jeff Fontaine, remain on staff today.

Colchester has changed dramatically in 50 years, Morrison said, and the police department has followed suit.

Issues that plague the community today, like opiate abuse and property crime, likely showed up far less frequently on a 1967 police log, she said. More broadly, Morrison said, the officers’ role has changed.

“Things were far less formal in terms of procedure and handling things exactly the same way this time as you did last time,” she said. “There was a far greater level of community caretaking and discretion happening, as opposed to strict observance of procedure or laws or rights.”

The expectation of police officers has also morphed. Morrison said a call to the PD is often citizens’ first resort, rather than the last.

Population growth is partially to blame, according to Morrison. When folks don’t know their neighbors, she said, they’re less likely to accurately detect unusual occurrences.

“You lose the ability for the community to police themselves,” she said. “The community will always be better at policing itself and detecting what is out of place than we will.”

Morrison also noted the impacts of technological advances and the 24/7-news cycle, saying both have brought benefits and challenges.

“Things that happen on the other side of the world have an impact on little old Colchester, Vt. because people are consuming that news immediately,” she said.

But some things haven’t changed. A 1967 news article Morrison found detailed a discussion regarding regionalized dispatch, an issue town officials are still mulling over today.

And while Morrison has enjoyed flipping through the pages of CPD history, she said she’s continuing to focus on the department’s future.

“My job is to chart the next 50 years,” Morrison said. “Their job was to get us here.”