Norwich police chief’s sudden resignation leaves town reeling with department turnover

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/7/2022 9:52:45 PM
Modified: 6/9/2022 10:02:39 AM

NORWICH — Only six months into the job, Norwich’s police chief suddenly resigned this week, the latest blow to a department and town struggling to fill positions vacated in recent months.

Simon Keeling, who was promoted into the top cop job in Norwich in January after filling the position on an interim basis the prior year, informed Town Manager Rod Francis in a terse email last Thursday that Sunday — three days later — would be his last day on the force.

Keeling gave no reason for his resignation, Francis said in an interview with the Valley News on Tuesday, though he added that it followed a telephone conversation between Francis and Keeling earlier that morning in which the chief expressed frustration in not being able to get body cameras for his officers and the ongoing difficulty in being able to fill the vacancies in the department.

The resignation was stunning because it was Francis who, when still interim town manager, appointed Keeling to the position as chief, which struck some observers as unusual in that an interim town manager was promoting an interim police chief into the job permanently without undertaking a wide search for outside candidates. (Francis was promoted to permanent town manager in February.)

Nonetheless, the U.K.-raised and -educated Keeling was well-liked by many Norwich residents who had interactions with him and was following another popular chief, Jennifer Frank, who took the chief’s job in Windsor.

Keeling, a Grantham resident, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Keeling’s resignation leaves the Norwich Police Department, which at full capacity would have three patrol officers in addition to a chief, with a single full-time patrolman, a recently hired “community safety officer” and an administrative assistant.

The police department’s critical staffing shortage parallels similar issues at the town’s Public Works Department, which has been unable to find workers with commercial driving permits in order to operate heavy equipment required for road maintenance.

It also comes at a time when Norwich residents and some members of the Selectboard are divided over the future of the town’s police force and whether the department’s policies should change in response to national calls for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis in 2020.

Several Norwich residents took to the town’s Listserv last week to express concerns about public safety with a severely understaffed police department.

“With all the school shootings, all the shootings in America, people are just very concerned for their safety, even here in a rural town,” said Doug Wilberding, who grew up in Norwich and was active in seeing the project to geothermal Tracy Memorial defeated. “It’s really scary.”

Police departments across the region and nationally are experiencing huge problems recruiting — the Vermont Police Academy currently lists 60 Vermont police agencies in the state seeking to hire officers — as many young candidates are nervous about law enforcement careers in a politically charged environment.

And Norwich is now the fourth Upper Valley town needing to hire a new police chief, following Hartford, Claremont and Springfield, Vt.

Francis, asked Tuesday if he can provide assurances about the safety of Norwich residents given the severely understaffed police department, said he “appreciates the anxiety that people are feeling” but said they “should not experience any significantly less protection now than they have in the past.”

Since Friday, Francis said, he has been in discussions with police departments in Hanover, Hartford and Thetford about providing assistance responding to dispatch calls as well as backup from Vermont State Police’s Royalton barracks for out-of-hours emergency coverage until Norwich’s police department can get back its full complement in personnel.

“It’s definitely a change but not a huge shift from what we’ve been providing,” he said.

(Francis said he couldn’t explain the presence of an Orange County Sheriff’s cruiser that had pulled over a motorist on Norwich’s Main Street the other morning that was observed by several residents. County sheriffs have authority to stop drivers in other counties than their own.)

Demand for police services has jumped sharply in Norwich since the pandemic began in 2020, according to the department’s data.

Norwich police responded to a total of 3,477 calls in the year ended June 30, 2021, a 69% increase from two years earlier, according to the Norwich Town Report.

Larceny/theft calls increased from 16 to 32, trespassing calls doubled from 15 to 30, traffic citations went were from 264 to 328, citizen assistance calls rose from 74 to 86, noise disturbances increased from five to 13, traffic warnings went from 415 to 646 and death investigations rose from one to three.

Having enough patrol officers in the department to respond to the increasing demands on police was evidently a top concern of Keeling’s.

Roger Arnold, chair of the Selectboard, said the board was copied on an email sent by Keeling to Francis dated May 26 with the subject line “PD pay and recruitment.” In the email, Arnold said, Keeling requested that patrol officer pay — which Francis said ranges from $21 to $24 hour depending upon experience in the union contract — be increased to attract qualified applicants.

But with the Memorial Day holiday there wasn’t enough time to get the item on the agenda for the regular June 8 Selectboard meeting, Arnold said.

“We do agenda-setting as allowed by law over email,” Arnold said. “So the timing unfortunately was (such that) we didn’t have the opportunity to even consider it” in time to place the issue of patrol officer pay on the agenda. And then Keeling resigned a few days later.

“This all happened very quickly,” Arnold said.

As for Keeling pressing for body cameras for officers, Arnold said that is a “policy decision” for the Selectboard to make but one it will not be taking up until the money — which has been budgeted and approved by voters — is available to spend in the next fiscal year’s budget beginning July 1.

Arnold noted that budget includes virtually everything the police department asked for, including the “full complement” of four officers and money for a new cruiser.

“The board supports the work of our police department, and the evidence of that is having … the budget that was requested of the department,” he said.

Contact John Lippman at

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