The Working Chief: A job greater than the sum of its parts

Chief Bert DuVernay  photo by Susie Mullican
Chief Bert DuVernay
photos by Susie Mullikan

Recognizing a chief’s retirement: on becoming free once more

Westborough, MA   November 25, 2014  We are happy to recognize the retirement of Bert DuVernay, chief of police in New Braintree.  It has been said that the reason police officers have such good retirement packages is because they do not live long after giving up the gun.  For example, a study of 2000 Buffalo, New York area police officers has an age-mortality of 12 years less than their civilian counterparts according to a paper published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin by Caudill and Peak in 2009.  I think this was true years ago so more departments are providing preretirement education to include health maintainance, emotional well-being, and financial planning.  Arguably, this short fall in longevity has been reduced in recent years as the physical health and well-being of officer’s on the job has been emphasized.  No longer do the “cops and donuts” jokes carry the day when speakers talk in pejorative terms about police officer behavior.  The truth is that each man and woman who enters the police service does so with a substantive desire to work with people and a calling for the camaraderie that exists behind the thin blue line.  For many reasons this is truth and should be respected.

One man’s transition

This is the story of one officer who was cut from another mold and did not retire out of embitterment. This man’s career stretched from Ohio to Massachusetts.  Ostensibly, Chief Bert DuVernay retired when the demands of a 24 hour per day job triggered his body’s cardiac rhythm to run amok.  He was a working chief and gave of himself each day that he left his home to go out on patrol or answer a call for help. But the impact of being on call on a nightly basis was hugely stressful and yet Bert insisted that a member of his own department answer calls for service – and that usually meant himself.  Many people did not appreciate this.

I first met Chief DuVernay when I was in New Braintree for my initial interview for the New Braintree Police Department in 2002.  The day was sunny and warm like the first days of little league baseball.  The grass outside the police station looked flat and brown.  Sand from the season’s snow was everywhere.  My memory of Bert was an image of him on his hands and knees searching the inside floor his marked cruiser for something he had dropped while out on patrol.  The clip to his collar brass I believe it was.  He laughed when I commented it might be easier if he cleaned the car once in a while or something similarly glib.  My first telephone conversations with him to this point helped me to realize this type of candor may be acceptable even though I was neither a friend nor an employee at this point.  It did not seem to hurt my chances as I was appointed by the select board in May, 2002 and worked closely with Chief DuVernay until June 2014.  In addition to the more routine patrol work I was assigned to maintain the department Facebook page and website that is popular to this day.

Working chiefs

So called working chief’s are those that must answer calls and hand out tickets just like it’s patrol force.  Working chief’s are required to arrest drunks, herd loose horses, and dust for finger prints – in short, small town chief’s were expected to do everything that came in.  This is what the chief in New Braintree did for over 12 years – having one vacation in August and one at Christmas.  I have known several working chief’s all of whom I respect for their service including: Westbrook, Maine Chief Pierre Harnois who was killed in the line of duty in 1959 during a domestic dispute – well before I was appointed to that department, Paxton, MA Chief Bob Mortell, who was killed in February, 1994 while in pursuit of two burglary suspects, Westbrook, Maine Chief Ron Allanach, now retired, wrote his own letters in long hand, and New Braintree Chief Bert DuVernay with whom I worked for 12 years.  These men exemplify a unique leadership gift that some might not fully understand.  That gift comes from leading by example and doing whatever it takes in service to community. The chain of command began and ended with them. Each of the men shared the same selfless commitment by not expecting others to do what they themselves will not do.

Chief DuVernay believed that his officers must be well-trained in anticipation of any event whether it was likely to occur or not. Officers in New Braintree were among the first in central Massachusetts to undergo the active shooter training in anticipation of what would become a bona-fide threat to all public schools – an armed intruder.  We were expected to move toward the threat and neutralize it – whether we had another officer by our side or not.  Waiting for back-up meant the loss of life as it has been shown over and over in schools large and small.  If we could not acceptably do this then we were not police officer material the chief espoused. Bert taught us that whatever happened in larger cities and towns was apt to occur sooner or later in the small community over which he was charged to police.

All officers were expected to attend monthly training in addition to twice annual firearms certification including extra night-time shooting and a winter experience as well. Annual legal updates were provided on a regional basis along with updated defensive tactics. Bert handed out prizes for the officer with the fastest draw-to-first hit or winning the annual dueling tree during the winter shoot. There was no denying that Bert DuVernay appreciated firearms and the espoused their inexorable value in the protection of life.  Each officer was trained in the use of the patrol rifle and taser well before neighboring communities thought about their adoption in the use of force continuum.  And as unlikely as it might seem, Bert expected each of his men and women to be ready and able to save the life of a brother officer using quick clot or a tourniquet bandage each officer was issued and expected to carry.  Guest speakers were invited to many monthly meetings for updates in many areas of study.  By providing training and regular rehearsal the expectation was for mutual respect and relative independence among officers – and focused readiness.  I once asked the chief to make me a detective and he replied “okay, poof – you are a detective” – typical chief’s mirth.  Truthfully, we were all expected to carry the mantle in whatever role the job required – no single officer more than another.  Bert was involved in training Incident Command at all levels and strongly believed in the current model being taught.

When I studied psychology I was asked to write an essay about my own retirement over twenty years ago.  At the time this was amusing – so far off.  Most of us wrote personal accolades of professional fame, success and money.  Time flies and now some of us are ready to call it quits.  Retirement is never easy.  No one can walk away from a career without some regret, nostalgia, and a little trepidation.  So as Chief DuVernay sets off for retirement I need to reminisce about just what I appreciate about my former chief.

Chief DuVernay meeting a trick or treater
Chief DuVernay meeting a trick or treater

First, shortly after being appointed I needed Bert’s help on a chapter I was writing.  The editor suggested I add pages about the gun lobby.  Bert read the chapter and recommended I review the work of John Lock for a balanced argument on guns.  The chapter was published in my book The Evil Kid’s Do, a book about childhood violence in 2007.  Later, I needed an expert to help teach a graduate class on deviance and I turned to Bert.  He gave a compelling presentation on the art of war and terrorism providing the class an inside view of the Beslan school takeover and terrorist attack that took place in 2004 at the hands of Chechnyan rebels. Bert was ahead of the curve on the topic of school shooting and its reconciliation.  Some months later we started working on a community policing model for the department including an expanded school presence and the beginning of a program of post incident follow-up designed to bring officer’s back to homes in the aftermath of domestic violence. Later Bert would help in the selection of a risk assessment tool used to measure the likelihood of spousal aggression in these same cases of DV and support my study of the “myths” of the Section 12 laws for the mentally ill.  Last but not least Bert was encouraging and supportive of my interest in domestic violence homicide allowing me time off to research a single case of domestic violence homicide that took place in Maine. Some colleagues and I published a psychological autopsy and presented our findings to the Governor’s Domestic Violence Homicide (DVH) Review Board in Augusta in November 2011.  Our findings have been cited over a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals including the Maine Law Review and serve as a national standard for DVH. In the mean time Bert continued his important work with the International Chief’s of Police Association teaching at the annual convention in Chicago all the while maintaining a department of 12 with all of its idiosyncracies.  There were no secretaries and there was no budget for full-time patrol and yet many members of the community believed we were staffed around the clock.  They expressed surprise when the chief showed up at a medical call at midnight or an early morning motor vehicle crash, or a drug overdose resulting in death.

Adjustment to retirement

As many officers near retirement the wish to help others may become jaded by years of frustration, conflict and sometimes traumatic exposure.  The bonds that tie officers together often lasts a lifetime and require effort to maintain.  But the end of a career can be stressful and debilitating when the officer is not ready to hand in his or her badge.  One of the most important factors to influence the success or failure of one’s retirement is the extent to which retirees felt their employers cared about their well-being according to Caudill and Peak (2009).  The primary adjustment comes from the mental separation from the job, forming new social circles, financial security and arguably, personal adjustment in the years and months prior to retirement.  The history we each have together serves as the timeline that connects officer’s together – past and future.  For this reason we commemorate officers as they become members of those who have served before us – still our brothers now in retirement.  Bert reached out to former chiefs and deputy chiefs to see that they were recognized by inviting them for our firearms qualifications and other training.  The web site and Facebook pages sought to bring the department history to life and create a digital timeline honoring those who were members of the department in prior years.  To this day, the most popular pages have been the photographs of former chief’s, old cruisers, and the call of the day!

Chief DuVernay at right with ultralight crash investigators
Chief DuVernay at right with ultralight crash investigators

The role of chief of police is largely greater than the sum of its disparate parts.  No singular job description exists to delimit the scope of practice in many small towns including New Braintree. Yet there is a price to be paid for the kind of poorly budgeted staffing structure that exists in many small towns today.  The delineation of command  in the traditional sense of hierarchy is more diffuse and lacks specificity under the model in use during Bert’s tenure.

The police chief’s job in 2014 has become increasingly complex to include budgets, ongoing training, leadership networking, communication, EMS, and management of schedules, mutual aid agreements and more.  In small towns the chief wears the hat of an investigator too whenever an allegation of child or elder abuse is reported.  Or when someone unexpectedly dies. The loss of community policing money reduced the budgets of smaller departments deeply since 2007.  The result has been doing the same or more work for much less funding – no easy task.

By requiring a 24-hour per day response a single officer cannot be expected to provide the day-to-day control and leadership needed to garner the support of those responsible for the allocation of budgetary support. It simply is not possible. There were some in the community who did not believe this.  Over time, the unrealistic expectation for a single officer to be available for service calls round the clock undermines the need to hire a second officer or a third.  Yet the physical impact of this rigorous schedule can be expected to take its toll over time.  Arguably, the cumulative drudgery of job-related stress can impact the innate biological underpinnings of each of us who wear the badge. This is well-known and established fact and will sabotage innovation and growth.

Nothing should diminish the role Chief Bert DuVernay had in New Braintree during his tenure.  His accomplished leadership is highly respected and his community oriented, open door policies held in check the crime rate and established many protocols that can be modeled elsewhere.  Until the end of his service he gave of himself.  The community of New Braintree is better off as a result of his years of service and many of us will miss his leadership, sense of humor and support for his officers.  And I will continue to carry my “go” bag and be ready – if I am called to his service once more.

Michael Sefton

REFERENCES

Caudill, C. and Peak, K. (2009) Retiring from the “Thin Blue Line” A need for formal preretirement training. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October, pp. 1-7.

Sefton, M. (2007) The Evil that Kid’s Do. Xlibris Press, Philadelphia, PA.

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2 thoughts on “The Working Chief: A job greater than the sum of its parts

  1. This is very powerful, and factual writing Mike affirmed by my own 7 years of experience as a police officer before departing for other pastures for many of the reasons you state. Chief DuVernay is an exceptional model for highly effective policing with his own boots on the ground. I and almost all others learned long ago that officer life risk is directly inversely proportional to department size, and Chief DuVernay clearly had that challenge mastered. He will be missed, and those who do not miss him simply understand little regarding his greatness.

  2. Thanks Brian for your thoughtful comment. As a former officer, you must realize that leadership comes in many shapes and sizes. Each officer needs to be handled “just so”. In 2014, a chief must be educated to manage all the job demands – not the least of which is the interface with his select board or town council. Chief DuVernay found a way to establish uniformity while never loosing site of each officers individual talents and bringing those out.

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