Windsor County sheriff’s race a rare showdown on oversight, duties and how police get paid

  • Ryan Palmer, a candidate in the Democratic primary for Windsor County sheriff, waves to drivers on the corner of Sykes Mountain Avenue and North Main Street in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Palmer said he’s trying to be strategic about reaching constituents and chose the busy corner because a large percentage of Windsor County voters live or work in Hartford. “People love to actually talk to a candidate,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Windsor County Sheriff Michael Chamberlain at the sheriff’s department building in Woodstock, Vt., on Monday, August 1, 2022. Chamberlain, 74, who started in law enforcement in the early 1970s and has served as sheriff for nearly 40 years, is running for reelection as a Republican and will face the winner of the Democratic primary in the first contested race for the position in over a decade. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Speaking with Jason Horowitz, of Rochester, Vt., and Bethany McCarty of Los Angeles, Windsor County Deputy Sheriff Thomas Battista campaigns at the Rochester Farmer's Market on Friday, July 29, 2022 in Rochester, Vt. Battista, of Springfield, Vt., is running for Windsor County Sheriff in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary against Ryan Palmer. The winner faces incumbent Michael Chamberlain in the general election. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2022 2:56:23 AM
Modified: 8/4/2022 2:56:24 AM

WOODSTOCK — Thomas Battista thinks it’s time for a new sheriff in Windsor County towns.

Ryan Palmer thinks so, too.

Michael Chamberlain disagrees with both of them.

Battista, a 20-year deputy in the Windsor County sheriff’s department, wants to unseat his boss, four-decade incumbent and Republican Chamberlain, as county sheriff in the general election this fall.

But first Battista must face off against Palmer, a police officer in Ludlow, Vt., and formerly in Windsor, who is challenging Battista in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.

The unusually crowded race for Windsor County sheriff, for which Chamberlain has not faced a challenger since 2003, is refocusing attention on a little-known leg of the law enforcement tripod in Vermont, where the sheriff’s departments pick up many of the unheralded duties of policing such as providing traffic safety and inmate transport and which customarily takes a back seat to the Vermont State Police and towns’ local police forces on fighting crime.

Drawing attention to the race also is the candidacy of Palmer, who advocates making the sheriff’s department a more proactive, countywide policing agency, a role it has not traditionally had the resources to undertake.

“I want to change rural law enforcement in Vermont,” Palmer said late last month over coffee at Dunkin’ in White River Junction before he was headed out to stand with a “Palmer for Sheriff” sign at the Sykes Mountain Avenue traffic circle. “I see a department with so much potential. It doesn’t have to be the sheriff of Nottingham.”

At the center of the sheriff’s race are three different visions of the department: the status quo, a traditional approach with a modern update or a radical reprioritizing of the department’s policing.

An elected position that normally attracts no challengers and scant attention, the Windsor sheriff not only commands a department of 18 full- and part-time staff, 14 cruisers and a budget of about $1.6 million, but also earns an annual base salary of about $94,000 plus tens of thousands more through a percentage of the department’s contract fees.

Vermont’s 14 county sheriff departments are historically relegated to prosaic law enforcement duties, even though deputies — in effect the line officers — statutorily have the same powers to make arrests and charge alleged offenders as Vermont State Police troopers or sworn local police officers.

Sheriff’s departments get little funding from either the county or state, and instead must hustle to fund themselves by cobbling together service contracts with towns, the court system, the highway department and private parties to provide police support functions such as writing speeding tickets, transporting inmates between prisons and courts, overseeing traffic safety at roadwork sites and serving civil warrants.

That leads Chamberlain, the current sheriff, to acknowledge the department is a “business”; without the contracts that provide the bulk of the department’s revenue, “we won’t be in business for long,” he says.

Critics might add that it’s a family business: Chamberlain, who said he just turned 74, also employs his wife and daughter as administrators in the department, a practice he defends by saying his wife passed the full 16-week program of the Vermont Police Academy and his daughter went through the part-time program.

Vermont sheriffs also are entitled to 5% of contract fees, a practice that Palmer contends conflicts with police service. But Chamberlain said he recently gave up collecting the 5% on most contracts because two of the biggest payouts have been reduced and “I knew it would be an issue” in the upcoming campaign.

Four decades behind the badge

Chamberlain was first elected as Windsor County sheriff in 1978 and served for 16 years, after which he took a few years away before returning and winning reelection in 1998.

He said he’d almost considered retiring before his return, “but then people asked me, ‘Mike, you’re going to run again, aren’t you?’ ” which persuaded him to seek another four-year term. He’s held the position continuously ever since.

One person in Chamberlain’s circle who’s not begging him to run again is Battista, 56, a 20-year veteran of the Windsor sheriff’s department who is challenging his boss for his job.

Both men acknowledge that it has made things a little awkward at the sheriff’s office, located on Pleasant Street in Woodstock.

And as an internal challenger, Battista believes, “I’ve done all the jobs and know how to get funding” and was the lead deputy for many years in writing grant applications for equipment.

Battista is putting himself forward as a reform candidate in tune with the national dialog on policing brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement and well-publicized incidents of aggressive policing targeting minorities.

“Right now, law enforcement is at all-time low in public opinion, and now is the time things have to change,” said Battista, who added that one of the chief differences between him and his rivals is that he wants to have a civilian review board to handle all officer complaints.

Palmer said he is skeptical of civilian oversight boards, believing they attract members who are “anti-police.”

“I don’t like the word ‘reform,’ but I’m a big fan of evolving,” he said, explaining that he would favor selectboards appointing a representative to an “advisory council” that would act as a “sounding board” to discuss issues with the sheriff.

Palmer, 35, is positioning himself as a change agent, running as a Democrat — although he formerly ran for public office as a Republican and declines to say whether he voted for former President Donald Trump.

He is calling for an end to what he calls “policing for profit,” a reference to the sheriff department contracting with towns to write speeding tickets, which Palmer contends is more about generating an income stream for towns — and by extension fattening the sheriff’s own paycheck — than addressing public safety needs.

Two opposing visions

Perhaps more radical, Palmer wants to pivot the sheriff’s department to provide traditional crime-fighting services to towns that do not have money in the budget to run their own police force.

Palmer said the sheriff’s department should be “focusing on real criminals that are victimizing society, using its resources and assets do that.”

“You have this countywide law enforcement agency that has all this potential, but it’s completely wasted,” he argued.

Battista argues that Palmer’s idea ignores the fundamentals of how the sheriff’s department funds itself and its traditional role in law enforcement in the state. He said sheriff’s deputies should not be at the vanguard on drug raids.

“Any major crime has to go to the state police because they have the resources,” he said.

Without endorsing any particular candidate, Hartland Town Manager David Ormiston said he is open to the sheriff’s department providing more core policing services — the town currently contracts with the Vermont State Police for 15 hours of patrolling per week — although he has one major caveat.

“If you get an elected sheriff that is a quality law enforcement officer who is going to dedicate himself to training his officers appropriately, then I think the sheriff’s department would be capable of doing something like this. There’s definitely a need for it,” Ormiston said.

“But if you get the wrong guy in there, it could backfire,” Ormiston warned, adding that “one of the reasons Hartland continually contracts with Vermont State Police is they have a standard we are comfortable with.”

View from ‘other side’

Palmer, a Windsor native who dropped out of Stevens High School in 11th grade — “I was class president but also class clown,” he explains — he earned a GED and was turned on to law enforcement by a neighbor, a cop who inspired him to enroll in a police cadet program as a youth.

“I always had an inclination to uniform service,” he said.

At 19, Palmer joined the Claremont Police Department and later worked as an officer in Canaan. He joined the Air Force Reserve, where he did two deployments overseas in emergency management. For several years, Palmer owned a gun shop in Windsor, and he continues to have a side gig as a DJ where he goes by the name DJ RPP.

But arguably Palmer is most associated with an incident in his employment history that he would prefer not be hashed over: In 2014, he was charged with acting unlawfully when he shot a man during an undercover drug sting in Windsor.

The prosecution painted Palmer as a cowboy cop whose testimony was unreliable, but after a three-day trial in 2017 a jury acquitted him after just six hours of deliberation, an embarrassing defeat for the state and vindication for Palmer.

“It should never have gone to trial. I was railroaded,” Palmer said, blasting the trial as “a political prosecution.”

Still, the ordeal was enough to send him to Louisville, Ky., for 18 months, where he settled with the help of a military buddy and took a job in private security. Eventually, Palmer sought a return to the Upper Valley and police work.

“I applied to a bunch of places up here, and Ludlow was the only one to give me a chance,” said Palmer, who now works the third shift. In 2021, he was elected to the Windsor Selectboard.

But Palmer said the experience of being charged and standing trial has given him special insight into the criminal justice system, one not typically shared by other police officers.

“Being on the other side showed me how to understand empathy, understand mental health; it really changed how I view the world,” Palmer said, adding that he was “in a really dark place” after the trial. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he said.

With the primary next week and months to go before the general election, Palmer has already made the oft-uncontested race one of the priciest in recent memory. He said he’s spent $25,000 in his own money, gains realized from a property sale, plus another $5,000 raised in campaign contributions, on media advertising and mailers to promote his candidacy — an unheard of amount for a Vermont sheriff’s race.

While not endorsing any particular candidate, Robert Sand, a former Windsor County State’s Attorney and founder of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law and Graduate School, said Palmer, in his view, “has done a lot of growing up the past eight years.”

“I think Ryan in his 20s was perhaps more impulsive than now, and I believe people can change,” Sand said.

Sand unfavorably calls the current funding structure for sheriff’s departments “a little bit like for-profit prisons.” He said he “applauds” the notion of refocusing the department to have a bigger role in community, “but whether that’s realistic or not, I don’t know.”

Contact John Lippman at

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