New Chester Police Chief outlines approach, goals

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

As Chester’s new police chief, Tom Williams says he wants to bring the department closer to the community and he’s started with his office. Williams, who as a lieutenant in the department, could have continued working out of that office, but decided to move into the office of former Chief Rick Cloud since it was “closer to the window” in the reception area.

Tom Williams – who was sworn in as chief in December brings 33 years of experience to the job. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

A little more than a month into his tenure, Williams sat down with The Chester Telegraph to talk about a few of the things he hopes to accomplish.

One of his major goals, he says, is for the public to look at the police as members of the community.

“The police are people too,” says Williams, while noting that he and his officers need to be approachable. “I think this department had gotten away from this and I don’t think Covid helped because everybody had to be away from each other.”

One thing Williams says over and over is that the police have to listen to the public. “Most people just want to be heard,” he says.  “If you just stop and listen to them, you probably won’t need to say a whole lot. Something is going sideways in their life and what they can control is telling you — if you’ll listen.”

He urges officers to “have some personality,” saying that “if you are a robot, militaristic and by-the-book,” it puts people off.

Members of the public “want to be spoken to – not barked at,” Williams says, adding, “There’s a place for that, but you don’t start there – with anybody. The police officer has to be in charge of that conversation, but if it gets out of control, what was the point of calling the police.”

Williams says he tells his officers to take time to meet people, to talk with them.

Chester, Williams says, is  more of a service-oriented department rather than a crime-response one, which aligns with statistics from the 2022 assessment of the department. That assessment was conducted by retired Vermont State Police commander Jim Baker, who found that just 8 to 9 percent of calls to Chester Police from 2019 through 2021 were for criminal violations.

Rebuilding the department

Down two officers, Williams divides his time between administrative work and the street

With a September retirement and a departure soon after, the Chester Police Department is down two full-time officers, and is running with three full-timers including Williams and two part-timers. That gap has wide-ranging effects on policing, the new chief says.

While three full-time and two part-time officers can cover seven days and nights, it means a single officer will be alone on duty much of time since shifts won’t overlap. And when that officer is Chief Williams — who has a take-home cruiser and works days to be available for meetings — the other two cruisers may be sitting in the parking lot, giving the false impression that no officers are on the street.

“Each time we add a new person, the schedule changes,” says Williams. “Having five (full-time officers) will allow us to overlap shifts and go back to 10-hour shifts, which contributes to officer wellness by allowing four days on and three off,” giving the officers needed “time to decompress.”

While hiring officers in Vermont is challenging, Williams says the department had two applications “in the pipeline.”

Williams also would like to add an officer to make the current detective position full-time, which was recommended in Baker’s assessment. That detective would run down complaints and contact witnesses, allowing for overlapping shifts and for the other five officers to do “proactive rather than reactive policing,” says Williams.

Baker assessment recommendations

Jim Baker presenting his assessment to the Chester Select Board on Sept. 21

Jim Baker presenting his assessment to the Chester Select Board on Sept. 21, 2022

Baker’s 29-page assessment had several takeaways including recommendations to work at better internal communication, developing a police community advisory committee and putting together mission, values and vision statements that “align with the needs of the community.”

Williams told The Telegraph that he would be instituting staff meetings to give officers the chance to discuss issues with each other and with him. Those meetings will also allow him to tell the officers what he wants done, leaving no “gray areas.”

At a recent Chester Select Board meeting, Williams spoke in favor of an advisory committee and hopes for community input including work on the mission and vision statements.

Public Safety as a team

Williams sees the public safety roles with town government as team efforts.

Part of that effort includes institutionalizing “cross-training” as one solution for solving manpower issues among Chester’s three emergency services branches. While police officers have also served in the Fire Department — Fire Chief Matt Wilson and former Police Chief Rick Cloud among them — Williams believes that since all police officers have been certified as emergency first responders, they could possibly serve in other departments as well.

One example is part-time police officer Michael Randizo, who is taking over the reins of the ambulance service from Amanda Silva. Williams said that when Randizo is finished with his ambulance work, he can take a cruiser to monitor traffic and still be near enough to the Public Safety Building to return quickly when there’s a call.

And Williams intends to join the Chester Fire Department in June, once he reaches the 20-year mark of service with the Springfield Fire Department.

Williams also sees a place for the Chester Police to play a supporting role to fire and ambulance personnel when they go out on calls including protecting those crews and handling traffic.

“If they go, our officer goes too,” said Williams. “We operate as a team.”

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