City police chief to retire early, cites lack of respect

VERGENNES POLICE CHIEF George Merkel, shown on the job this past January, this week said he would retire at the end of October. Independent file photo/Steve James

VERGENNES — Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel on Tuesday submitted an unexpected letter of retirement, effective Oct. 31, citing unhappiness with how he and the department he has led for 13 years have been treated, but without offering specifics.

Merkel’s decision to retire earlier than he had planned came in a statement emailed to Mayor Matt Chabot and the other six members of the Vergennes City Council, plus City Manager Ron Redmond.

“As some of you know, I had planned to retire on my anniversary date of 30 November 2024, however, due to the events of the past four years, the continued and unwarranted disrespect and treatment of myself and the Vergennes Police Department, and the resulting effects on the health of myself and my family, I hereby submit my notice of retirement,” he wrote.

He continued, “I will greatly miss many of the members of the community of the City of Vergennes, with whom I have developed wonderful partnerships, and together we bettered our community. I love my ‘Little City’ and I would like to think I, along with my officers, did our best to protect and serve the citizens of Vergennes.”

Merkel, 68, declined in a phone interview to provide specifics. Certainly, he and city officials have had discussions in recent years about the size of the department and its funding, something that has also been debated by Vergennes residents.

But city officials and many residents have steadily praised Merkel and the department, notably his work in gaining the trust of citizens and building a respected, well-trained force from a department that was in disarray.

As well as helping shepherd a successful bond proposal to fund a badly needed new police station, Merkel has more recently established Project Vision North, an effort modeled after Rutland police’s successful effort to forge stronger ties with area social service agencies to better serve residents in need of help.

“I think he’s built the Vergennes Police Department and its reputation into what it is today,” said Chabot. “We have outstanding officers and a vibrant and safe community that the police department contributes to maintaining. I would be hard-pressed to find anything disparaging to say about Chief Merkel, his overall department, or his officers.”

A recently completed study of the department’s operations by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), one the council commissioned about a year ago, also praised the department’s operations, training and officers.

But the IACP also recommended that a longstanding vacancy not be filled. Police spending, including annual payments on the new station, is close to 40% of the city’s budget (not including the sewer system, funded by user fees).

And the council appointed a committee to evaluate whether Vergennes could benefit from a citizen advisory panel to work with city officials to improve police-community relations and to make recommendations on the department’s operations. Earlier this year, the committee concluded that such a panel should be established. The council has yet to act on that recommendation as it awaits a final IACP report.

The department came under fire in a 2017 study titled “Driving While Black And Brown In Vermont.” University of Vermont Professor Stephanie Seguino was the lead author. The study examined the rate at which white, Black, Latinx and Asian drivers were stopped, and the outcome of those traffic stops. It concluded minority drivers were not treated equally.

The study singled out the Vergennes department as problematic, but Merkel insisted the study and its methodology was flawed, in part because it was impossible to identify the race of a driver before pulling over a vehicle. However, a follow-up study that focused solely on results of stops still found outcomes favored white drivers.

Tensions in Vergennes reached a high point in 2019, when Chabot, then the city manager, and then-Mayor Jeff Fritz proposed to cut two police department positions. That plan sparked pushback from Merkel, his uniformed officers and many citizens in a contentious public meeting in the Vergennes Opera House, and the council backed off from the proposal.

Councilor Mel Hawley is one who believes Merkel and his department have not been treated properly.

“George couldn’t take it any longer,” Hawley wrote in an email to the Independent. “This is what happens when there is a lack of support from our current City Manager and Mayor along with their desire to micro-manage and disrespect our Chief of Police.”

But Redmond said he was “sad” Merkel was stepping down ahead of schedule, and he praised Merkel’s tenure.

“I am also very grateful for all that he’s done for the city. I think about where the city was when he first came, and where we are today,” Redmond said.

He also cited praise from the IACP study.

“What I harken back to is when IACP did come,” Redmond said. “They said they could not believe being in a community this small and having officers that were this professional and well trained as you have. And a lot of that can be attributed to the continuous training that George had done with them.”

That training has focused on giving officers specialties, such as domestic violence intervention or Drug Recognition Expert training, that not only has benefited the department, but also the officers, Redmond said, which is critical in a small department with limited chances of promotion.

“Each of them has been able to blossom and grow,” Redmond said. “Realizing there wasn’t necessarily advancement for a path upward, he allowed for personal and professional growth.”

“This is a really good team,” Redmond said, adding, “He really professionalized the force.”

Redmond described how many citizens talk about the chief and how he’s watched Merkel successfully mediate disputes.

“When I go out in the community and I talk to people, everybody says to me, ‘He’s a good guy,’” Redmond said.

Chabot said he told Merkel he regretted his early retirement decision.

He said he doesn’t believe he treated Merkel or the department poorly.

“I feel I have always treated Chief Merkel and the officers of the Vergennes Police Department with respect and courtesy. I think it’s unfortunate he feels in some way disrespected,” Chabot said.

City officials said they understood Merkel’s shoes would be difficult to fill.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Redmond said. “We’ll see where we go, where we head.”

Merkel offered some advice: “Any one of my officers is capable of assuming a leadership position.”

After about 30 years of police work, Merkel said he might be interested in a position in law enforcement consulting or training, but he ruled out another similar leadership post.

“At this time, I don’t see myself going back into a chief’s position or something like that,” Merkel said.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll see what the future holds for me.”

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