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Bristol police chief turning in badge after 31 years; Gibbs to retire at the end of August

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Posted on August 14, 2017 |
By Gaen Murphree



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BRISTOL POLICE CHIEF Kevin Gibbs is retiring from his position after 25 years leading the force. Gibbs is leaving at the end of the month. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

BRISTOL — Had he been just a little bit shorter, longtime Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs might have become an Air Force pilot, but at 6-foot-4 he was too tall to fit in the cockpit by Air Force specs.

Instead his desire to serve his community and — he frankly admits — a love of the adrenalin that comes from being the calm authority figure in an emergency led to 38 years as a policeman, 31 of those with the Bristol Police Department.

Gibbs joined the Bristol police in 1986, and became chief in 1992.

He retires at the end of this month.

“He’s just an icon for law enforcement in Addison County,” Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said of Gibbs. “He’s been a real asset — and replacing his institutional knowledge of all things Addison County is going to be really difficult. Not to mention, just trying to make Bristol a better place.

“There’s been nobody more dedicated than Kevin.”

Gibbs, 57, grew up in Connecticut and came to Vermont in 1979 to attend Norwich University, where he studied criminal justice. While still in school, Gibbs trained for the National Guard security police and began serving in the Air National Guard. He also began spending long hours volunteering as an emergency medical technician with the Northfield ambulance squad.

Gibbs found his EMT work so rewarding that he left Norwich and sought work fulltime as a police officer. He landed his first municipal police job with the Waterbury Police Department, starting out as a part-time patrolman in 1984.

“I was a big fan of Kennedy — What can I do for my country? I felt service was important,” Gibbs said. “Every police officer I’ve ever interviewed … will say, ‘Well I want to help people.’ And we all do. But I think, too, there’s something about the adrenalin, managing crisis. Rescue squad same as police or fire — you’re going into a situation where people are just losing it. And just being able to manage that — it’s kind of exciting to be able to keep your head about you when everyone else is going nuts.”

Gibbs came to Bristol as a patrolman in October 1986, his first job on a municipal force full time.

Over the years, he said, he thought about moving on to a larger police department or taking a law enforcement job that was more specialized or higher paying. But he realized that he wanted to stay in Bristol.

“There’s something to be said for serving in the community you live in,” he said. “The longer I stayed here, the more I came to feel that Bristol was my home. And I wanted to make my home a safe place.”

Serving in Bristol, Gibbs has had a full range of challenges as a policeman. Bristol has the same crimes as New York City, he said, just in reduced frequency:

“The thing I’ve always liked about working in a small town is you get to take on everything. You’re like the country doctor. You’re going to deal with everything. You get to do it all.”

JUSTICE FOR VICTIMS

Among the most impressive aspects of Gibbs’s career has been his focus on helping victims of child abuse and of domestic violence. Common refrains heard throughout his interview with the Independent: “Getting justice for victims” and “Victims need to be made whole.”

As Bristol’s senior patrolman in 1987, Gibbs was tasked with investigating all of the department’s child abuse complaints and sexual assaults, a responsibility he’s maintained until recently. Throughout Gibbs’s career he continued to expand his experience in these two important areas. In 1991, Gibbs became certified as a Law Enforcement Trainer in Domestic Violence. He’s taken hundreds of hours of additional training in the area of child abuse and domestic violence. He’s extended his expertise by providing training and consultation to other area law enforcement agencies. And he’s carried this responsibility all the way to the grass roots, by helping to train volunteers with WomenSafe.

   DURING MOUNT ABRAHAM Union High School’s inaugural Safety Fair on May 5, students began with a “mock crash” organized by students in the Mt. Abe Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program (VTLSP). Here, Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs helps secure the scene.

Photo by Jim Lockridge

Gibbs is a founding member of the Addison County Domestic Violence Task Force and a current board member of the Addison County Unit for Special investigations.

Over the course of his career, he’s investigated hundreds of child abuse and domestic violence-related crimes.

As a young officer beginning his career in policing, Gibbs encountered not just a policing culture but an attitude nationwide that domestic violence and even child abuse were private matters in which society shouldn’t interfere. These attitudes were reflected in the law itself, and police had limited ability to arrest perpetrators of domestic abuse.

This did not sit well with Gibbs.

“I could go to a house in 1989 where a woman had called the police to say ‘My husband assaulted me.’ I could show up. She could have a black eye and a bloody nose. And I could not arrest him because it was not a ‘witness misdemeanor,’” said Gibbs.

“What I had to do back in those days — and if you talk to any cop who was a cop back in those days — I got really good at getting the perpetrator of a crime like that to take a swing at me or punch me. That’s how I got him out of the house. I got really, really good at getting people to take a swing at me.

“And there were cases where you knew that was what you were going to have to do, because if you left, that woman was going to take another beating because she called the police. So the only way I could keep her safe was to get the guy to take a swing at me.”

In addition to his work protecting victims of child abuse and domestic assault and bringing those perpetrators to justice, Gibbs is proudest of his work with Bristol’s DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Working in collaboration with then-Bristol Elementary School Principal Terry Evarts, Bristol police ran a DARE program from 1993 to 2006. What Gibbs found most important about the program was the relationships he and other officers built with kids, establishing trust over time.

Not only did those relationships help kids make good choices as they grew older, said Gibbs, the program had other positive results as well. He remembers one victim of sexual abuse who wouldn’t speak with other investigators. She agreed to speak with Gibbs, though, because she knew him from the DARE program and trusted him enough to talk about what had happened to her.

Gibbs is also proud that the Bristol Police Department has a long-term lease on its own office space. He feels he is leaving the department in good hands with Bristol police Lt. Bruce Nason as officer in charge. He knows that the fight against drug-related crime, especially, is in a better place than it was five or so years ago when the department had reduced manpower and Gibbs himself was dealing with his wife’s ultimately losing battle against ovarian cancer.

And he feels that over a career with its own challenges and accomplishments, he’s kept to a high bar for serving the community.

“My most important tool is my integrity and credibility,” Gibbs said.

   BRISTOL POLICE CHIEF Kevin Gibbs swears in new officer Jori Fairbanks at the start of a Bristol selectboard meeting in Holley Hall in September 2015.

Gibbs also noted that sometimes it can feel bad to have to uphold the law. He described arresting a woman for shoplifting, knowing she’d stolen those diapers because she didn’t have any money. He still arrested her. It was the right thing to do. But he also bought her several packs of diapers and let her know about area resources to help her pull through.

MOVING ON

Losing his wife to cancer was a watershed moment for Bristol’s hardworking police chief.

She died on May 23, said Gibbs, the date etched indelibly on him memory. He then adds it was in 2011.

“She died in my arms,” he said.

Her struggle against cancer and its aftermath was for Gibbs the lowest point in his life.

He remarried last fall to Dina Short, who is also in law enforcement. And now he would like to spend more time with his family, including daughters Kate and Caroline.

Gibbs mentions, too, that he’s scheduled for some hip surgery and describes himself as “like a rusty old Chevy that spends a lot of time in the shop.”

As police chief over the past 25 years, Gibbs said it’s been more difficult to take time off than to just keep working. And his work ethic and sense of the responsibility to the community has led to routinely long days, long weeks and long hours.

Gibbs’s daughter Kate is already grown up and in her 20s; Caroline is entering her senior year at Mount Abraham Union High School. He said he wants to spend more time with her while she’s still at home.

“I’ve always told both my daughters that if you need me for anything, you call. I’ve answered calls from my daughters in the middle of an arrest,” said Gibbs. But equally typical is his exchange with his younger daughter on a recent morning.

“She wanted me to take her to the movies tonight, but I’ve got a meeting with the board,” he said.

“Life is short,” says Gibbs, who said that every day before he leaves home his wife makes him promise to come home safe.

For Gibbs all this now means it’s time to take a new path.

While Gibbs’s wife and daughters will get more of his time, Bristol and his law enforcement colleagues will see less of him when he retires. Chief Hanley of Middlebury, like many others, wishes him well.

“Kevin’s been a terrific colleague both as a chief and an officer,” Hanley said. “He’s going to be greatly missed.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]

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