October 23, 2014

Police chief looks for balance after first year on the job

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

July 3, 2013

Nearly one year into the job, Police Chief Todd Shepard said he is focusing on balance, community and the future.

“I have no complaints,” Shepard said. “I feel welcomed…. I haven’t been faced with really any significant issues and that’s good.”

Shepard, former deputy police chief for South Burlington, signed an offer of employment late last June. Shepard had been with the South Burlington Police Department since 1985.

Shepard said his first year as head of the Williston Police Department has been smooth, and the town manager, Selectboard and community have been supportive.

“I don’t have a lot of internal issues I have to contend with and I don’t have lot of external issues,” he said. “To me, it seems to be the right fit. I have a very good team within the police department.”

Shepard acknowledged that he came into a police force that struggled with infighting and instability. An investigation into the Williston Police Department by Thomas Tremblay in 2011, which focused on the period of April 2009 to May 2011, identified “poor morale” and “lack of trust.” More recently, the attorney general’s office held interviews with several members of the department in December 2012 in response to an unspecified complaint. Town Manager Rick McGuire said he has not heard from the attorney general’s office since then.

Shepard said he has implemented quarterly staff meetings, held a full-day team building session early on in his tenure, and has worked to open lines of communication within the department.

“One of the things we have focused on is the past is the past, I’m new, let’s move forward,” he said. “Those who were involved will have memories of issues, but our focus needs to be how we are working together as a team to provide policing services.”

He also noted that the department has been through a lot of transition recently, with three acting chiefs between 2010 and his arrival, and said he hopes to provide stability and security.

“We’ve done a very good job of becoming a good team,” he said. “My emphasis is always on the good work that my officers are doing. They do their best with what they have to work with. We get a lot of support from the town, a lot of support from the (Selectboard) and the town manager, and that promotes positive feelings and good morale.”

McGuire said Shepard has made progress with the department atmosphere.

“I think he’s doing a fine job,” McGuire said. “There are still a lot of things we need to accomplish as a department, but I think we’ve made great strides over the past year…. I think he’s made a lot of progress. Things can always get better and I know he’s working on that.”

REACHING OUT

In the next year, Shepard said he plans to focus on balancing the department’s time between responding to calls and preventative community work. Right now, the balance leans in favor of responding, he said, with many of the calls coming from Williston’s big box stores.

“My real focus would be on how do I interact with the community to try to prevent crimes and things from happening, so we don’t always have to react to them, knowing we’ll always have to react to something,” he said.

Shepard said he’d like to encourage community involvement, whether it’s positive feedback or alerting him to a need for additional services.

“It’s my hope to be out in the community a little but more, get more information, get more feedback,” he said.

The department is reaching out through a community survey, which will be available July 15 to Aug. 15 online at www.town.williston.vt.us/police or in the police station lobby. The survey results will likely drive the creation of specific community initiatives, he said. He also plans to begin fleshing out the department’s online presence, as well as write a regular newsletter.

A YEAR POLICING WILLISTON

In the past fiscal year—which ended June 30 and roughly coincides with Shepard’s first year as chief—the department responded to 4,904 incidents, up 25 percent from the last fiscal year, and arrested 438 people, up 10 percent from last year.

Shepard said he hasn’t seen any significant trends or crime rashes since he began.

“Our larcenies, which are larcenies from stores or from vehicles or properties, this type of crime is certainly on the top of the list,” Shepard said.

The most common types of incidents the department responds to are retail theft or fraud, motor vehicle offenses and marijuana possession. The department’s role in the last of the three will shift with a new law that went into effect July 1 making possession of less then an ounce of marijuana a civil offense.

In the last fiscal year, police responded to 260 thefts, 32 burglaries and one robbery, as well as 63 counts of fraud.

“It seems like a lot of our services are directed toward retail and box stores,” Shepard said. “They are a member of the community and deserve that service, but we do answer a number of retail theft complaints from there and fraud-type complaints.”

Police also handled 519 traffic accidents with damages, 26 with injuries. Officers responded to 160 incidences of driving with suspended licenses and 57 DUIs.

“One of the things I’ve been working toward is trying to work on our accident rates,” Shepard said.

As anyone trying to get home at 5 p.m. knows, Williston gets a lot of traffic. That translates to a lot of accidents, speeding and aggressive driving, Shepard said.

“The traffic is going to be there and we want to make sure it’s done safely,” he said. “We need to be there to do some of that enforcement piece but also try to do anything we can to try to prevent the crashes and incidents.”

While most of the drug-related incidents in Williston involve marijuana, Shepard said officers have seen “small levels” of harder drugs like heroin in Williston. Countywide, small methamphetamine labs have been exposed in recent years, and Shepard said he “can’t say there are or aren’t at this point” labs in Williston.

Shepard is also looking at the coming population growth as people begin moving into the Finney Crossing development. He said he doesn’t have a specific policing plan for the neighborhood, but expects to train his officers for that type of residential housing.

STAFFING LEVELS

In an ideal world, Shepard said he would have four additional officers on the police force—though he added he didn’t foresee that happening anytime soon.

In March, voters approved a municipal budget that provided for an additional officer—the first position added since 2006, Shepard said. Shepard also put in a grant request to the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, looking for funds for another officer.

Two added officers would create “a very good balance,” he said.

“I’m trying to focus on everything as whole,” he said. “Being the administrator of this department and having seen a rise in our activity levels… one of my main focuses is on how do I make sure we have the staff to support the service needs of the community.”

McGuire said he would like to see the department up to full strength—one patrol position is currently open, though he said it might be filled in the coming months.

“We need to explore a larger number of avenues for recruiting new officers, but more importantly we need to do what we can to retain the good officers that we already have,” McGuire said.

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