New sheriff in town: Palmer hopes to transform Windsor County office

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-29-2023 8:53 PM

WOODSTOCK — In February, a couple days after Ryan Palmer was sworn in as Windsor County’s new sheriff, he “started looking around for a pad of paper” in preparation for his first staff meeting. So he asked a deputy to point him to the supply closet.

“He said they were locked away in a jail cell and you needed to get permission for the key and then write down on a sheet what you took out,” Palmer said in a recent interview at the Windsor County Sheriff’s offices in Woodstock.

As he spoke, he showed off the cell where the supplies had been kept in solitary confinement, stacked on iron bunks where inmates once slept.

“I realized I had some big cultural changes I needed to implement,” Palmer said.

Now the department’s office supply closet is an actual closet, right off a room of where there is desk space for deputies — also new. And no one has to write down how many paper clips or ink pens they take from the shelves.

It is a small but telling detail in how Palmer, who unseated former longtime Windsor County Sheriff Michael Chamberlain at the general election last November, is making over the department. Ultimately, he hopes to evolve into a “regional” policing agency on equal footing with the state police and municipal police departments.

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“We can be your small-town, rural Vermont police department for towns that can’t afford their own police department and to fill the void left by Vermont State Police,” he said.

Like law enforcement agencies nationally, VSP is facing a major shortage of troopers, explained Palmer. That manpower challenge is part of the pitch he and Palmer’s No. 2, Tom Battista, have been making to town selectboards around Windsor County, where they’ve found towns have wide-ranging attitudes toward policing.

In the past, the sheriff’s department had contracts to provide patrolling to the nine Windsor County towns.

“The old business model was largely based on stopping cars and writing speeding tickets,” Palmer said. “My goal is to move away from that, be more a regional law enforcement agency responding to calls for service.”

By “calls for service,” Palmer is alluding to typical 911 calls reporting criminal incidents, such as burglary, criminal threatening, domestic assault, assault with deadly weapon and drug offenses.

At the job only 12 weeks, Palmer has quickly moved to stamp his imprimatur on the sheriff’s department.

He ordered up a newly designed insignia for uniform patches, painted the offices and has trumpeted arrests on the department’s new web site, as well as through its new social media accounts.

More substantively, Palmer has also not been timid about spending money — relying on a combination of reserve funds, loans and grants — on a series of big-ticket equipment purchases, including:

■ $219,000 for the five new cruisers;

■$62,000 in new computers;

■$50,000 for body cameras;

■$18,000 for a fingerprinting machine;

■and $16,000 on stun guns.

The department has been nominated by U.S. Sen. Peter Welch to be awarded $1.24 million under forthcoming appropriation bills to upgrade its radio communications network, a key piece of infrastructure if the department is going to expand its bootprint — although the award will have to survive the lengthy appropriations process before final approval.

And Palmer also is on a hiring spree: He has brought on eight new deputies — six of them are under the age of 30, five from towns such as Windsor, Woodstock, Sharon and Ludlow — plus two support staff, bringing the total size of the approximately $1.5-million budget department to 22 personnel, 20 of whom are sworn officers.

He also has contracted with a licensed counseling therapist to provide one-on-one counseling to deputies who have experienced stress and trauma on the job and is looking to bring aboard a social worker to help both crime victims as well as those at risk of committing offenses connect with mental health resources and support programs.

On a white board in Palmer’s office are “to do” items in columns with checkmarks next to them ticking off the ones he has done.

“I’m gradually moving down the list,” Palmer said.

Palmer, 36, who had run for public office and previously voted Republican, ran as a Democrat when he sought to unseat incumbent Michael Chamberlain, 74, who had first been elected sheriff in 1978 and served — apart from a brief intermission — for 40 years, rarely facing a challenger. Both Chamberlain’s wife and daughter were also employed on the department staff.

The refrain of Palmer’s campaign to be elected sheriff was “End Policing for Profit,” a eye-catching slogan that resonated among liberal Windsor County voters when Palmer’s flyers arrived in their mailboxes. Palmer — who spent more than $25,000 of his own money on campaign advertising — handily won with 15,629 votes versus Chamberlain’s 9,824 votes.

(Palmer clarified that by “profit” he meant the practice of writing speeding tickets so that towns would be remitted by the state a portion in order to cover the cost of their contract with the sheriff’s department, but not the 5% of contract revenue the sheriff is entitled by Vermont law to take for himself.)

Vermont’s sheriff’s departments traditionally have served as adjutants to state and local police forces by providing prosaic functions such as transportation of incarcerated people to court appointments and courthouse security, traffic control around road construction sites, processing of civil court warrants and contracted patrols of towns.

Because Vermont has only the barest form of county government — the traditional funding source for sheriffs’ departments — the state’s sheriffs are forced to secure private contracts for services for most of their operating budgets.

“Mike always said running the sheriff’s department was running a business, which I credit him with doing well,” Palmer said.

The purpose of the raft of new equipment purchases and hiring — possible in part thanks to $800,000 in department savings accounts prudently accumulated under Chamberlain — is to prepare the agency for its expanded mission, according to Battista, a 20-year deputy in the department who ran and lost to Palmer in the primary. Battista has formed a solid relationship with his new boss as the de facto No. 2 overseeing the business and financial side of sheriff’s office.

“The whole thing is to make us a much more interactive, information-based police service,” Battista said. “We want you when there’s a problem to call us first, because we have the most people in the county that can probably respond to your situation.”

But if Palmer wants to reshape the mission of the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department into providing broader policing services, he will need to first win over town selectboards to his vision and persuade them to absorb the higher costs to cover both the added deputies and new equipment.

At the same time, the towns would be receiving lower remittances in traffic fines due to Palmer’s de-emphasizing the issuance of speeding tickets.

So far Palmer has received a mixed reception, with some selectboards embracing the idea; others, true to Vermont’s small-town ethos, have balked at any increased spending that leads to higher property taxes.

On Monday, Palmer will go before the Sharon Selectboard with his plan to provide general policing to the town.

“We’re quite interested in what he has to say,” said Sharon Selectboard Chairman Kevin Gish. “The sheriff said to me awhile back he’d like to increase coverage and everything, which is great.

“But it comes down to money and I don’t see us increasing our budget at this point,” Gish said.

Other selectboards are struggling with the same question.

“We’re kind of torn in the middle. Some people really like the idea of more police presence in town; others really don’t see the need short of traffic control. And then there’s the price tag. You get a lot of pushback on that,” said Bill Young, chairman of the selectboard in Bridgewater, one of the towns which contracts with the Windsor sheriff.

Before the pandemic, traffic tickets would generate nearly $250,000 annually in revenue for Bridgewater — Route 4 through the center town had long been one of the state’s most notorious speed traps — but it has dwindled to a fraction of that in recent years as sheriffs curtailed flagging speeders due to the pandemic, according to Young.

Young said the town’s current $80,000 annual contract with the Windsor sheriff, which remains in effect through the fiscal year ending June 30, would increase to more than $100,000 under a new contract that would provide expanded policing. But he pointed out that voters cut the town budget 10% at last town meeting, and the selectboard is still mulling the sheriff’s proposal.

“We had to chop everything virtually 10% so there not a lot of money to have for a $100,000-a-year sheriff contract,” Young said.

Regardless, Bridgewater is not in the grips of a crime wave that would call for augmented policing, he noted.

“We got the occasional vandals, stolen bicycle and tire-popping, but I wouldn’t say there’s been an uptick” in crime, Young said.

Next door in Plymouth, Vt., however, Selectboard Chairman Rick Kaminsky said they like Palmer’s approach and recently signed a new contract that does not cost more but provides the town with greater assurance over the sheriff services provided.

“Our previous contract was of very limited scope, we paid an hourly rate and it was mostly for traffic control,” Kaminisky said.

But for a “lump sum” of $60,000 annually that will kick in at the start of the new fiscal year in July, Kaminsky said the sheriff will be providing 15 hours to 20 hours of general policing per week.

And there’s a value-added element.

If there is a call for service outside of Plymouth’s contract hours and there is a sheriff’s unit in the neighboring contract towns of Bridgewater. Cavendish or Reading, the Windsor County sheriff will respond to the call from Plymouth.

“That’s a huge difference. We didn’t have that before,” Kaminsky said.

Palmer said it is early yet but he feels like he’s off to a solid start. He’s just waiting for the six new recruits to finish their training at the state police academy so they can report for duty.

“We got the foundation,” he said. “Now we just got to get these young people trained up.”

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