When Barry Habecker started as Milton’s first-ever police chief in 1968, the town didn’t even provide him a cruiser. He went to work in a brown uniform, toting a Billy club, handcuffs and a .357 Magnum. He made $125 a week.
Like today’s cops, he busted up fights, solved break-ins and investigated suicides. He even stopped a town selectman for speeding once. But in the 50 years since Milton Police Department formed, near everything else has changed.
The department commemorated five decades of service at last week’s National Night Out, an annual event to strengthen police-community ties. It proved the perfect backdrop for Milton PD, an agency that made community policing a cornerstone of its mission after a department-wide walkout in the ’80s damaged public trust.
Chief Steve Laroche was advised to steer clear of this chapter in MPD’s history, but he sees no reason to hide it.
“What has happened in the past is the past,” he said. “I can tell you I’m here now, and I’m really proud of the group we have.”
Laroche has served Milton PD for half its 50-year history, starting in 1992 as the force’s eighth officer. He’s now the department’s eighth chief. His public plea for pieces of MPD’s history yielded numerous artifacts, including the first-ever department camera, newspaper clippings, photographs and even Habecker’s original uniform.
Assistant treasurer Paulette LaFond unearthed a report from the May 3, 1968 vote that established the department. In the most “Milton kind of way,” Laroche said, voters supported the measure 117 to 96 on a special ballot. It allotted $12,000 for the chief and one full-time officer.
Back in those days, 32-year-old Habecker was essentially on duty 24/7 with his wife, Phyllis, serving as dispatcher from their home. Now 83, Habecker recalls patrolling the town of about 5,000 fondly, letting out a hearty laugh when asked to reflect on his early days at the station.
He remembers getting called out on his wedding anniversary and planting a tape recorder behind the high school to monitor what the kids were up to. He recalled the tragedies, like child deaths and a handful of suicides, and arresting a gang member on a federal warrant.
Since Habecker’s swearing-in, the town’s population has grown to nearly 11,000, and more than 200 people have served on the police force. That revolving door was Milton PD’s reputation for years, and one Laroche thinks the town has finally dispelled.
Turnover was a main concern as late as the ’90s, when former Chief Bob Stafford was at the helm. Now an investigator for the Vt. Agency of Education, Stafford recalled his seven years in Milton positively, though he said the rats and pigeons that took up residence at the former police station didn’t make it “the most conducive environment to work in.”
Milton PD also offered comparatively lower pay and fewer opportunities for growth.
“Our officers did everything from running radar, getting drunks, to being detectives, which was a great training ground,” Stafford said, noting Milton didn’t have enough resources to join regional taskforces. “You really need to take care of home before you send somebody out.”
At the time, Milton PD was rebuilding after the entire force walked out in 1987 over a major dispute with then-Chief Jim Lyons that resulted in a $400,000 payout in legal fees and punitive damages. The incident is still used as a lesson at the police academy today, Laroche said.
Five years and two interim chiefs later, Stafford came on board and started up a number of community policing programs. In one called Project CHIEF, Milton police personnel were paired up with classrooms at local schools. Officers introduced D.A.R.E. and a criminal justice course for eighth-graders.
Simultaneously, police investigated high-profile crimes, including back-to-back-to-back bomb threats whose successful resolution officers credited to relationships built with Milton students.
This was especially evident early in Stafford’s tenure when he responded to a domestic dispute between parents with a child in the home.
“I heard this kid say, ‘Hey, there’s my adopted police officer. There’s Chief Stafford,’” he recalled. “The parents stopped arguing, and it was like everything came to a stop.”
It was a teaching moment, showing Stafford “the things we do in the community can be very effective when we got into some tough situations,” he said.
MPD began conducting run patrols, where a plainclothes officer – armed with only a radio – took hourlong patrol around town, once locating a stolen ATV. They partook in the Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run, a tradition that continues today, and bolstered Neighborhood Watches.
For all this, MPD won the 4th Annual Robert Trojanowicz Community Policing Award in 1997 from a New England crime prevention organization. Stafford still has a bound copy of the award letter, nomination and supporting documents and considers it one of the department’s highest honors.
“Milton’s story should be told,” he said.
Since then, MPD has grown from 11 to 17 officers, thanks in large part to federal Community-Oriented Policing Services grants. COPS grants helped Milton hire a student resource officer, a special detail unimaginable in 1968. It also has a K9 unit and two detectives and just promoted a third sergeant, Milton native Gordon LaFountain.
Twenty-five years ago, Laroche couldn’t imagine applying for a grant to train officers to detect drugged driving, but he did that last Monday night. He wouldn’t have thought mental illness would drive so many calls for service, but today it’s the top factor behind most issues, he said.
Much like teachers, police officers are expected to function as social workers and counselors, raising the bar for new recruits: They can’t just enforce the laws; they have to know how to deal with people, Laroche said.
That’s why the handshakes and high-fives his officers received at National Night Out were so meaningful. It shows the town supports them, Laroche noted, a foreign notion in Milton just a quarter century ago and one many other agencies can’t claim. To Stafford, it means the community policing efforts he instituted have staying power.
“It’s not a program,” he said. “It’s a philosophy.”