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Longest-serving Middlebury cop has retired

MIDDLEBURY POLICE SGT. Mike Christopher retired last month after an eventful, 35-year career. He was the longest serving officer in the department’s history. Photo courtesy Middlebury PD

A ‘deadly force’ response certainly would have been justified, but I just didn’t pull the trigger… and I’m glad I didn’t.
— Sgt. Mike Christopher

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Police Department Sgt. Mike Christopher has had varied assignments during his lengthy career, ranging from minor traffic stops to facing down armed suspects.

But one of his biggest challenges was making a final exit from the Middlebury police headquarters on May 28, after a 35-year career that made him the longest serving officer in the department’s history.

“It was kind of tough walking out the door for the last time,” Christopher, 64, said during an interview on Monday.

His introduction to the world of law enforcement came through an older cousin, a New York State Police trooper. As a child, Christopher was impressed by the uniform and intrigued by the exciting aspects of the job.

Upon high school graduation, he signed up for a four-year hitch with the U.S. Air Force. While he was placed in an administrative role, Christopher got a taste of the discipline and training that would be expected of him in a future policing role.

After the Air Force, he attended Adirondack Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in Police Science — a diploma he’d proudly upgrade to a bachelor’s degree at Champlain College in 2004.

With a solid foundation of schooling and military training by the early 1980s, Christopher began weighing his job options while also courting his fiancée — whose family was in Wyoming, where jobs were plentiful at the time. The young couple moved there in 1982.

So Christopher started his law enforcement career with a small police department in Medicine Bow, Wyo. He enjoyed the work, and after a short while was poised to join a large sheriff’s department in Southwestern Wyoming.

But then fate — and family — took over. His in-laws decided to move back East, meaning virtually all their relatives would be centered in the Empire and Green Mountain states.

It was around this time that another of Christopher’s cousins, who was working at the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, passed along word of multiple police officer openings in our area — including at Middlebury PD.

Christopher completed the requisite testing in Wyoming, and did well enough to receive offers from the Brattleboro, Bellows Falls and Middlebury PDs. He chose Middlebury, and started there as a patrol officer on Dec. 2, 1985. Al Watson was chief at the time.

Christopher’s job was to essentially blanket the town, to the greatest extent possible, answering calls for service and troubleshooting problems he encountered. There was also traffic enforcement, and everything from aggravated assaults to welfare checks.

Policing became more structured during the summer of 1991, with the hiring of new (and current) Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. He assigned officers to specific neighborhoods under a “community policing” model, one that allowed police to build rapport with their constituency and thus foster greater trust and collaboration.

“It was an updated method of policing,” Christopher said of Hanley’s general approach. “Taking some of the older concepts, and modernizing them. Getting back into the community we patrol.”

He credited Hanley with being the right person at the right time to take over the department.

“He brought some updated ideas and concepts to the police department, and engaged the officers into buying into those ideas,” he said. “Through his guidance and leadership, I think the department has definitely evolved into a top agency.”

Being a personable and caring guy, Christopher enjoyed the work. He liked helping people and preserving the peace. His job performance was rewarded in 1999, when he was promoted to sergeant.

“For me, it was a good time for me to give back, in a way, and guide and mentor new officers,” Christopher recalled of his promotion.

Making new officers feel at home was — and still is — very important for a variety of reasons he noted. Among them is the high turnover rates within small- and mid-size police departments. Quality new recruits can be tough to come by.

“It was a good time to use what I had learned and be a role model to those officers,” he said.

It’s a skill Christopher developed even before his promotion. He served as a field training officer, to whom newly minted patrol officers were assigned during their first three months on the job. Christopher estimated he showed the ropes to more than 15 new recruits during his field training days.

And Christopher knows firsthand that good training can save lives. That training has come in handy during what Christopher said were “many sad or tragic incidents over the years” (see story).

After all these years, Christopher still holds the belief that the majority of people are inherently good, but everyone has occasional rotten days.

“A lot of what police deal with is folks who are at their worst,” he said.

MOVING ON

He’s happy to now cede his job to the next generation of Middlebury police officers.

“It’s a young person’s job,” he said with a smile. “You need new blood and new ideas.”

But Christopher isn’t slipping into an idle retirement.

He purposely timed his departure to coincide with late spring and a summer of fun. One of his favorite pastimes is motorcycle riding. He belongs to an international motorcycle club called the “Gunfighters” — which he hastens to say is not rough-and-tumble, but rather a tip-of-the-cap to the country’s first law keepers, like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, who’d gained notoriety as gunslingers.

Christopher plans to spend more time with family, including a young grandson. It won’t make up for all the weekends, nights and holidays he once worked as an officer, but better late than never.

He’s a World War II buff, and looks forward to traveling to Europe to see some of the related battlefields and museums.

“I’ll take the summer to adjust,” he smiled.

Christopher’s many contributions to the department are summarized in a career service commendation, including the department’s Exceptional Service Medal, that Hanley bestowed upon him on May 28.

“During his time as sergeant, he demonstrated consistent leadership, without fail, carrying the patrol unit through a number of challenges,” the commendation reads. “He conducted internal investigations, pre-employment background investigations, and never shirked a duty assignment. He demonstrated unfailing loyalty to the department and at times of the chief’s absence, capably led the department ensuring consistency. In dynamic situations he always rose to a level of leadership and command inspiring confidence in his subordinates. With respect to day to day operations, he always carried the mantle for the department ensuring consistent application of department policies and quality in performance.”

BONNIE ALSO RETIRES

Middlebury PD bade farewell to another longtime employee last month — dispatcher Bonnie Murray, who retired after an incredible 50 years of service. Efforts to secure an interview with her were unsuccessful as the Independent went to press on Wednesday.

Hanley offered this testimonial for Murray:

“Bonnie’s institutional knowledge of the town and its residents was her biggest asset. She knew every colloquial name, every family name associated with a location, she knew local call histories — all of which helped her get officers quickly to any location in town. She also had an incredible skill at handling multiple calls at once, if things were busy she would forgo a lunch break to stay engaged as well as work beyond her shift to help manage a major event. She was very dedicated to the job.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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