With parts of the nation in tumult — pandemic, protests in the streets, campaigns to reform the police — what’s it like to be a police officer in Lamoille County these days?
The Stowe Reporter spoke with officers in the Stowe and Morristown police departments and the Lamoille County sheriff’s department about how things are going.
When Bruce Merriam, a Stowe police sergeant, responded to a domestic dispute last month, he found a man down on his luck.
The man lost his job when the coronavirus shut down the economy, he couldn’t pay for his home, and all his possessions were in his car when it broke down in Cabot and was impounded when he couldn’t afford to move or repair it.
“Occasionally we have the opportunity to make a difference, even if it’s a small difference,” Merriam said.
Merriam mediated the situation, and the two agreed the man should leave. The sergeant offered to give him a ride — the man said he could stay with a friend — but they made a stop along the way.
“I could tell I needed to spend more time with him,” Merriam said. The guy needed to cool down after the altercation. He asked him if he was hungry, and he was, so they pulled into the Maplefields in Stowe. Merriam bought the man a couple of breakfast sandwiches and a drink and they sat in the police cruiser and talked.
“He had a story, so I listened,” Merriam said. That’s when he heard about the unfortunate chain of events. After, they talked about life and Merriam tried to help the homeless man sort out a plan.
“I was thankful I could do it for him … he was thankful too.”
That’s what things are like for the sergeant in these strange times. He said call volumes are down, but the individual cases require a more personal touch and more attention.
“It’s about taking the time to talk to people,” he said.
Merriam has worked in law enforcement for 36 years, and his father did before him. He’s not used to this new normal.
“Interacting with people with a mask is not always easy,” he said; something is lost in translation and things seem less personal. And that’s what the job is about to him, he said, being part of a community.
When George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Merriam was appalled. He said the way those officers acted was inexcusable. Vermont’s police are different, he said. Here, community service is built into the foundation of small-town departments.
Calls to defund the police make him uncomfortable. His son is a state trooper and his wife works for the attorney general’s office. Like the man he took out for breakfast, many of the situations he deals with on a daily basis involve mental health or social work. And Merriam said he’s done his job well.
“I believe if our officers approach any situation coming from the right place, that’s what good leadership looks like,” he said. “We’re not warriors; we’re guardians.”
“We deal with mental health cases almost on a daily basis,” said Jason Luneau, a police sergeant in Morristown, where he’s worked for since 2005. “Law enforcement has changed a lot in the last 15 years. In today’s world, we’re expected to solve a lot of societal problems.”
Since the pandemic, his day-to-day hasn’t changed much, but mental health calls have tended to be more severe.
“I did deal with a person who was depressed and suicidal who was dealing with it through drinking,” Luneau said. The man had lost his job and the free time didn’t do him any good.
“It drove him into depression even further,” he said.
Luneau was able to coordinate with Lamoille County Mental Health and get the man some help.
Police these days fill many roles, Luneau said: “We’re marriage counselors, we’re mediators in domestic disputes, we’re guidance counselors for troubled youth.”
Morristown police work with Lamoille County Mental Health to get the training they need to be all those things.
So far, so good, Luneau said, “but I also think we need to continue training so we can do our job even better.”
That’s one reason the movement to reallocate some police funds to other things, such as social workers and drug counselors, concerns him.
“I feel disturbed by what I saw happen in Minnesota,” he said of George Floyd’s death, when a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds until he was dead. “That kind of conduct has no place in policing and goes against everything we have learned.”
Training can help avoid tragedies like the George Floyd killing, Luneau said, and training takes money.
“The defunding of police seems to be happening at a fast pace,” he said. “It’s something where you need to get all the facts and see where they stand before deciding what to believe.”
There hasn’t been any talk about adjusting the Morristown police budget, but if it came to that, Luneau said his objective would stay the same.
“We’re going to do our job whether we’re full staffed or not. When someone calls 911 with an emergency, we’re going to respond.”
In the pandemic, “our role kind of changed; we (police) were pretty much the only folks that were out and about,” said Chis Watson, a sergeant with the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department. He did less traffic enforcement and spent a lot of time checking on vulnerable people in the community, even delivering groceries.
“As far as handling calls on a face-to-face basis, unless it was an extreme emergency, most of that stuff was handled over the phone,” he said. But the calls he did respond to were more serious. He recalled a friend talking about the cases he’d see in the hospital emergency room: “It almost seemed like people were waiting longer than they normally would for their calls for help.”
He said people appreciate the work he and other deputies do, and that didn’t change after the George Floyd killing.
“I feel very, very lucky to be working in this community,” he said, but he became concerned as he watched calls for defunding the police spread across the nation.
“I was a little worried about it. Even other places in the state where I don’t see that support for law enforcement,” he said.
Watson takes pride in his work. His grandfather and great-grandfather were deputies in New York. Now, “depending on where I am, I’m a little reluctant to tell people what I do,” he said. “I don’t want to be judged just on what I do for a job. It’s unfortunate that all it takes is one bad act to put a spotlight on all of us.”
His biggest concern about the defunding movement would be the safety of social workers and people they’d be trying to help.
He said mental health services have a hard time finding enough people to fill jobs — just as the police do. If you defund one, you create wider gaps of care where there are already blind spots.
“Unfortunately, those gaps are where the people really need the services,” he said. And, a mental health crisis can be dangerous to both the responder and the person in need.
“If you don’t have a law enforcement officer there to start the process, then what are you going to do?” Watson said.
These are the things Watson’s been thinking about. He started working for the department in 2002, and plans to retire in five or six years.
“I’m curious to see what the next five or six years look like,” he said, “This is not the same job that I started.”