Hi 9° | Lo -14°

In Hartford, Fire Chief Expands Into Police Role

  • Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke is Hartford’s new public safety director. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke is Hartford’s new public safety director. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke confers with Lt. David Shropshire at the scene of a fire in Wilder on Feb. 2, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke confers with Lt. David Shropshire at the scene of a fire in Wilder on Feb. 2, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke is Hartford’s new public safety director. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke confers with Lt. David Shropshire at the scene of a fire in Wilder on Feb. 2, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Hartford — There’s a new man in charge of the town’s emergency services.

Three months after Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg first floated the idea not to hire a new police chief and instead create a cross-departmental “public safety director,” Steve Locke has moved into the position. The town’s fire chief started his expanded assignment on Sunday.

Locke, 43, will act as an administrative overseer of the town’s fire, police and emergency communications departments.

“There’s nothing to lose here,” said Locke, who has been part of the Hartford Fire Department since 1992 and will continue as its head. “We’re all tasked to make this a better organization, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Also, as part of the departmental shuffling, Police Capt. Brad Vail has been promoted to deputy chief of operations, where he will be in charge of uniformed officers. Police Deputy Chief Leonard Roberts, who has been serving as interim chief since April, will return to his former position as administrative deputy chief and handle the day-to-day administrative and non-uniformed police work, including management of the detective unit. The one-member department will add a second detective later this year.

“I think it’s good,” said Roberts, adding that the town’s 22-member force is on board as well. “I think we can definitely move the department forward from here on out.”

As public safety director, Locke will receive a raise of about 10 percent, Rieseberg said, which will act as a stipend added onto his base earnings.

That means Locke’s salary, which totaled $92,793.09 as fire chief, increases to $102,426.22, according to Executive Assistant Eliza LeBrun. Vail will receive a 5 percent stipend, raising his salary to $68,140.94.

And Roberts, who had received a 5 percent increase when he served as interim chief, will revert to his base salary of 79,625.35, LeBrun said.

Rieseberg estimated that the administrative changes will save the town $90,000 annually, even after taking into account the higher salaries.

Under the new leadership model, the police department will attempt to tackle two goals, according to officials: a stronger community policing program and national accreditation, both of which will hold the heavily-scrutinized Hartford Police up to national standards.

Though there is already community policing in place in town, Vail said he hopes to get more officers into elementary schools — the town’s middle and high school have a resource officer — to, for instance, eat lunch with students.

“We want to be more community friendly,” Locke said, adding that he believes the department does good work. “Right now, I don’t think that’s the perception.”

Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker, who initially expressed skepticism over Rieseberg’s proposal to create the public safety director but subsequently swung his support behind the idea, said that officers could show up at town events on bicycles, or occasionally walk beats in more populated downtown centers. The higher visibility, he said, could work as far as “maybe softening the edge, in terms of how they might deal with people in town.”

Over the past several years, the police department has been accused of using excessive force. In one highly publicized incident, Hartford police pepper sprayed and beat Wayne Burwell, a black man who was found semi-conscious and nonresponsive in the bathroom of his own home, after responding to a call that the home was being burglarized.

“Sometimes, as one gains experience they get a different look at things,” Parker said, noting the force’s relative youth. “And it gives them a better opportunity to evaluate a situation, and not be real hard-nosed about it.”

The community policing push will also include resurrecting the Citizen Police Academy, which Vail said will occur over 8-10 weeks and teach residents about some of the specifics of police work. The program was put into effect once before, under former chief Joe Estey, but Vail plans to make it an annual occurrence.

Locke’s other priority will be to push the police department toward accreditation, which would certify it has adopted “best practices” standards.

“It’s a very exhaustive and very comprehensive self-assessment process,” Rieseberg said.

The police services at the University of Vermont are currently the sole accredited department in the Green Mountain State, while both Hartford and Rutland are currently in the self-assessment process, according to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Locke said the Hartford Police Department began its process in September.

The Hartford Fire Department is the only accredited one in New England, according to data from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, which accredits fire departments. Hartford’s department received its first five-year accreditation in 2004, and had it renewed in 2009.

“He has successfully implemented those objectives for the fire department,” Rieseberg said of Locke. “So he has sort of an innate understanding and appreciation for what those things bring to those departments.”

And regardless of the historical turf war between fire and police departments, Hartford’s two deputy chiefs said they are both willing to work together toward common goals.

“I think as a management team, with all of us involved, we can accomplish quite a bit,” Roberts said.

“When three heads get together and we figure it all out,” Vail added, “it certainly helps.”

Rieseberg initially brought the public safety director idea to the Selectboard as one way to accommodate a tight budget in which town health insurances premiums and worker’s compensation costs have shot up while the tax base has decreased.

Despite a contentious series of meetings over the past several months that saw opponents air their concerns about Locke’s lack of police experience, the Selectboard got behind Rieseberg’s proposal.

“As I stepped back and looked at the situation,” said Parker, “I realized that (Locke’s) an effective leader.”

For his part, Locke said he has spent the past several days meeting with police officials to gain to familiarize himself with their work. However, the fire chief will not become a deputized police officer with arrest powers. If a major crime occurrs, Vail would still be the one to direct officers and manage the scene, the deputy chief said.

And one advantage of the newly created position, officials said, is its flexibility — no staffers were cut or added at top levels, so the police and fire departments can easily return to their former configurations if necessary.

“I think it’s a one- to two-year exercise,” Rieseberg said. After that time period, he said, “We may have some in-house candidates who are better prepared to pursue that position.”

Though Locke said he’s permanently rooted in Hartford, he realizes that his tenure as public safety director may only last for a couple of years.

As such, he doesn’t have to give any thought to a marble bust in his memory one day having to be erected, he said.

“I’ve got no legacy to build,” Locke said of his role in the organization. “We just want to make it better than it is today.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.