Letter to the editor: Hanley a model police leader

Not many towns or cities in the United States get the benefit of 30 years from a police chief, and especially one who so embodies the “protect and serve” philosophy, with a heavy emphasis on the “serve” part. Middlebury made a great decision when it hired Tom Hanley as its chief.

I was a young reporter at this paper when Chief Hanley was hired. At that time, the police department seemed to have a bunker mentality, hostile to the press and skeptical of the public. When presented with the challenges we faced getting public information from the police, Tom was shocked. Public information was public information, he said, and told us to contact him if there was ever a problem. Rarely, if ever, was there a problem. In fact, police officers under the chief became very responsive to information requests, and seemed happy to share the good work they were doing.

Chief Hanley immediately started making the police department accessible to all the public. He moved to a neighborhood policing model that gave areas of the town access to an officer they could reach and who would be responsible following up with citizens of that area. While that has evolved over the years, the commitment to responsiveness never wavered.

I particularly remember the Pine Meadows double-homicide/suicide in the 1990s, a complex daytime tragedy that included a fear that the shooter was on the loose near downtown. Chief Hanley handled the unprecedented situation professionally, making himself available to the press late into the night. Most remarkably, he willingly and openly discussed difficult decisions he made, for better or worse, such as not identifying the suicide victim as the shooter sooner by rolling his body over. This would have ended the need for lockdowns and other safety measures, but potentially harmed the crime scene investigation.

I later worked with immigrant dairy farm workers in Vermont when their numbers and presence in Vermont were growing — and so were encounters with local and state police, some of whom felt obligated to enforce federal immigration laws and detain these workers who were mostly out shopping.

Chief Hanley changed the narrative in Vermont. He said making anyone in Middlebury fear talking to the police was counter to good policing. Immigrant farm workers were just as likely to be victims or witnesses, and he wanted everyone to feel comfortable reporting crimes. His policy soon became statewide policy, and put Middlebury on the map as a welcoming place.

Thirty-plus years as police chief creates a lot to say — but just two more features of Tom’s tenure stand out to me. Several years ago, Chief Hanley and his department honored one of their own for bravery during an armed standoff. At a time when police shootings are a daily feature of the news, this officer put himself in significant danger, but de-escalated the situation and resolved it without violence. That is policing everyone can be proud of. 

Finally, Chief Hanley left the department with two highly qualified, long-serving candidates to replace him. Few towns are so lucky.

I may not be a Middlebury resident, but I am thankful our shiretown police department has been well led. Congratulations to Chief Hanley on an amazing tenure. 

Peter Conlon


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