At last week's police chief question-and-answer forum, Milton resident Karlo Salminen ignited conversation about policing a mental health crisis.

At last week’s police chief question-and-answer forum, Milton resident Karlo Salminen ignited conversation about policing a mental health crisis.

Stephen Laroche, the town of Milton’s choice for its next police chief, outlined his vision last week in a community forum that didn’t avoid tough questions.

Selected from a pool of 35 candidates, Laroche said he wants to bolster Milton Police Department with specialized roles and increase community policing efforts.

  Residents quizzed Laroche on everything from traffic enforcement and mental illness awareness to implicit bias and use of body cameras.

Held last Thursday in the municipal building, the forum concluded a three-month search that gleaned three internal candidates including Laroche, a 25-year department veteran.

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve been able to stabilize the police department,” he told the crowd. “It’s no longer a training ground for officers to move on to other agencies.”

Laroche’s priorities include assigning a detective to investigate high-level drug activity in town, full-time. As of now, Milton’s two detectives often get bogged down with fraud cases and other non-violent crime.

He’d like to create a traffic safety officer position, not just to write tickets but also to increase Milton’s involvement in national safety campaigns.

Laroche’s suggestions were bolstered by statistics: In the last six months, nearly 50 calls have involved heroin, whether they’re domestic disputes or overdoses (there have been 29 of those in the last two years, he said.)

And since last April, Milton officers have issued 275 percent more warnings and tickets for drivers using cell phones.

Laroche also envisions another school resource officer and an officer joining the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations, a county taskforce that investigates child abuse and sexual crimes.

Milton resident Katrina Battle had a host of questions, collected from various groups to which she belongs. She was primarily there as a founding member of the Milton Inclusion and Diversity Initiative, a group that formed after allegations of racism surfaced in the Milton School District.

As such, one question was about implicit bias: Does Laroche acknowledge it exists, and as chief, how will he address it?

Laroche said Milton PD adopted the state policy on fair and impartial policing and said he recently underwent training on the issue.

“I learned we all have implicit biases, no matter what they are,” Laroche said. “We have to recognize we have a bias, and when we do recognize it, we have to work really hard to make sure we police so everyone’s treated with respect and equal.”

Battle also asked about body cameras, which MPD has used since 2014. Laroche said after being appointed interim chief in October, he immediately instituted a body camera policy governing their use. He said the policy requires supervisors to review traffic stop footage at random.

“They’re one of the best tools in law enforcement, because it makes my job easier when someone calls and says, ‘One of your officers …’” he said. “I feel strongly, that’s why we started that policy.”

After the forum, Battle had mixed reviews of Laroche’s responses. A woman of color who wants police accountability, Battle was pleased to hear Laroche’s stance on body cameras but felt some of his other answers, especially on impartial policing, were too textbook.

Laroche simply noted the state policy, Battle said, which activists say removes protections for undocumented immigrants. She wanted to know how Laroche interprets it.

“What does that look like, practically speaking?” Battle asked. “We can’t wait for a policy to come through to tell us what the standard is. When the policy comes through, we should already be higher.”

Still, in this forum and in Battle’s other interactions with Laroche, she found he’s willing to learn. If she had to grade him, she’d rate an 8 out of 10, she said.

Karlo Salminen, a 48-year resident, suggested officers increase patrols in neighborhoods, not just on Route 7. He also asked about how police handle people undergoing a mental health crisis.

Laroche said mental illness is just as prevalent as drug use in town and suggested Milton apply for state or federal assistance for additional resources.

Rep. Chris Mattos (R-Milton) picked up on the latter topic, asking what could happen in Milton now that the Vermont House and Senate passed H.511, legalizing small amounts of recreational marijuana.

Laroche thinks marijuana use certainly won’t decrease. He said it’s concerning Vermont lacks a roadside test to detect a driver’s level of impairment, and it hasn’t set a threshold for being “under the influence” of pot.

“That’s what we’re up against,” he said, noting the need to educate children about pot’s dangers. “We’re going to be stuck dealing with this issue. As they say, God help us.”

Laroche is also committed to increasing officers’ presence in the community, primarily through attending town events. He mentioned the possibility of hosting a “citizens’ police academy” so residents get a real feel for being an officer.

Closing his presentation, Laroche challenged the audience to help chart the police department’s path.

“It took us a long time to get where we are today,” he said. “When I started, we didn’t have the reputation we have today.”

Laroche was formally installed as chief three days after the forum. He replaces Brett Van Noordt, who served as chief for 18 years.