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Lt. Robert Kirkpatrick in his office at the Brattleboro Police station. He is retiring after 25 years on the force.

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Pulling threads and hunting down leads

Lt. Kirkpatrick retires from the force after 25 years in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO—Most of police work is making split-second decisions, says Lt. Robert Kirkpatrick. Officers always hope their decision turns out to be the right one.

Kirkpatrick leans back in his chair and watches the activity of the officers on his shift as they respond to events in town.

It’s a busy morning. The 25-year veteran of the Brattleboro Police Department isn’t sure how long he can stop to talk.

“This is one of the best training grounds in the state of Vermont,” Kirkpatrick says.

Officers interact with a wide variety of people, he says, describing the town as a good place to learn how to communicate with people and build relationships within the community.

Kirkpatrick has spent his entire career as a patrol officer, passing by other options like taking a desk job or a detective’s position. Every day is different.

“I’ve always loved the street myself,” he says.

Kirkpatrick retired last week. Of the officers currently employed by the town, he had the most years under his belt. Not surprising for a man who left the cushy corporate world for walking a beat.

“Brattleboro has been good to me,” he says. “It was always a roller coaster here.”

Among the reasons for moving on, Kirkpatrick says, was that he owes it to his wife, Jane.

Police work is more volatile, he says, with plenty of people “happy to take a shot.”

And, at age 57, Kirkpatrick says he no longer wants to take on the 25-year-olds on steroids.

“I’m not 25 years old anymore,” he says, laughing.

Working for the community

Kirkpatrick loved his time as an officer. He credits the teamwork of officers and citizens helping him do his job.

“We can’t do this job without the public,” he said.

Criminals see police coming from a mile away, Kirkpatrick explains, but they never pay attention to “Joe Q. Public.” A community and police force lose their town to crime when citizens become too afraid to come forward or do not want to become involved.

Kirkpatrick believes in community policing, which to him means police and citizens reach out to one another, creating relationships and working together.

It’s rare that the bull-in-china-shop approach works, he says. “Sometimes empathy goes a long way.”

In his opinion, it’s rare that bad officers stay on the job; the work’s pressures weed them out pretty quickly.

Kirkpatrick’s first experience in law enforcement was as a military policeman in the Army from 1976 to 1979. After the military, he worked for General Electric, where his father also worked as an engineer.

A resident of northern Vermont, Kirkpatrick decided, however, that “corporate was not any fun” and left GE for the Shelburne Police Department in the 1980s.

Shelburne Police Chief James Warden remembers Kirkpatrick.

“He was a pleasure to have around,” he says.

Kirkpatrick liked working with people and worked hard to build relationships within the community, his former chief recalls. Warden required that his officers stop into at least two businesses during their shifts to talk to people.

“I wish I had more officers with his outlook, his thirst to learn, and to do what’s right,” Warden says.

Kirkpatrick transferred to Brattleboro in 1990 when he and wife Jane returned to the area to be closer to her family.

A sergeant for four years, Kirkpatrick rose to the rank of lieutenant in 2002.

Used to the bedroom community of Shelburne, Kirkpatrick said the 24/7 town of Brattleboro took him by surprise.

“It was a shocker,” he says.

The then-new officer had very little experience with the level of drugs, alcohol, and mental-health issues he would encounter on the streets that he would patrol for a quarter of a century.

He arrested a cyclist with a blood alcohol level of 0.52 who pedaled out of the woods and crashed into his cruiser.

Some Brattleboro residents have matured along with Kirkpatrick.

One such resident, frequently drunk during the time Kirkpatrick has known him, used to go toe-to-toe with the officer.

“We chat now — we don’t roll around on the ground anymore,” says Kirkpatrick with a smile.

Brattleboro’s busy streets link back to the town’s proximity to Interstate 91, he observes. He also notes that the specialized facilities in the area, like the Brattleboro Retreat or former Austine School, also contribute to the BPD’s calls.

A mixture of no-nonsense and compassion, Kirkpatrick discusses learning to treat with care and respect people who are dealing with addiction, homelessness, or mental-health issues.

“They already have problems,” he said. “You don’t want to make more for them.”

Cultural divides have played roles in calls that Kirkpatrick responded to. In particular, he recalls students at the School for International Training, whose customs and experiences around law enforcement varied widely and fell along a spectrum from blase to terrified.

“Culture can be a huge thing when you’re having those contacts,” says Kirkpatrick. “Balancing that over the years has been quite interesting.”

Change and acronyms

Kirkpatrick rattles off acronyms like he’s cooking an alphabet soup: DUI, DRE, CID.

Policies and policing have changed over Kirkpatrick’s career. He witnessed the drinking age shift from 18 to 21. He has seen the education and outreach tactics around drugs and alcohol have become more prominent.

With the abundance of illicit drugs and prescription medications on the market, Kirkpatrick has also seen a shift in the standard driving-under-the-influence (DUI) traffic stop. Officers now frequently call in a drug-recognition expert (DRE) when confronted with an impaired driver.

Now, the state is considering legalizing marijuana, he says, shaking his head. In Kirkpatrick’s opinion, the substance impairs people’s ability to drive.

The department has also changed how patrol officers and detectives in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) collaborate and investigate cases.

And then there’s the guns.

Kirkpatrick becomes somber. It’s rare an officer discharges his or her weapon.

“They’re a tool of what we do,” he says — “one we hope we never use.”

A 25-year career in BPD

Brattleboro as a community demands a lot from its officers, Kirkpatrick says — and yet, compared to other communities, the town pays less.

It’s not uncommon for the department to invest in training an officer — 19 weeks in the police academy followed by 12 weeks, at minimum, of field training, only for the officer to leave after a few years for better wages.

Kirkpatrick remembers when the department was down 11 officers. The remaining staff found themselves under pressure to cover shifts, and on the budget was stressed from so much overtime.

When reminded of the traffic stop he made last October that led to the seizure of 2,750 bags of heroin, $3,257 in cash, and stolen property — and four arrests — Kirkpatrick lays the praise at his colleagues’ feet.

“You have to have teamwork,” he says. No one person assembles all the details that will lead to an arrest.

The drug problem in Brattleboro will never fully disappear, he continues: The department arrests one bad guy and another one stands ready to fill his empty shoes.

“Drugs are terrible,” Kirkpatrick says. “They make a good person do bad things.”

Addicts don’t necessarily want to commit crimes, he notes; it’s the addiction that drives them outside society to a place where they stop realizing the pain their actions cause.

Kirkpatrick points as an example to robbery as a means to get money to buy drugs.

“They just don’t know the lasting effects of what it does to the person who is the victim,” he says.

Victims of crime lose their “safety zone,” he says. “It’s pretty sad.”

When asked about alternative justice programs like restorative justice, Kirkpatrick pauses, then struggles with his answer.

“There has to be a consequence for that act for you to be afraid of committing the act,” he says.

“I feel bad for the victims a lot because I feel they don’t get their due a lot of the time.”

Fine tuning skills

Capt. Mark Carignan, who served as the sergeant on Kirkpatrick’s shift for over three years, says he has come to rely on Kirkpatrick to keep a lot of the department’s moving parts in working order.

“He’s probably the most gregarious, easy-going guy in the department,” says Carignan. “It’s hard to ruffle his feathers.”

Carignan learned patience from Kirkpatrick — to allow events and information unfold without making snap decisions. He appreciates Kirkpatrick’s institutional memory and savvy handling of large community events like Strolling of the Heifers or July 4 celebrations.

Carignan also credits Kirkpatrick with helping him fine-tune his skills for relationship building, respectful communication, and listening.

“Relationships permeate everything,” Carignan says.

The 15 or 20 minutes an officer spends listening today can lead to hours saved later, he explains.

And the lieutenant who steps into Kirkpatrick’s station will have big shoes to fill, Carignan says.

Officers are under a microscope from society and policies, Kirkpatrick says.

“You’re a police officer 24/7,” he says. “You live your life in a bubble.”

Making a difference

Kirkpatrick will miss knowing that his work makes a difference.

Like the man who approached Kirkpatrick to thank him for arresting him for DUI. The traffic stop put him back on track, the man told Kirkpatrick.

Occasionally, Kirkpatrick still hears from a woman who was kidnapped by an abusive partner. Kirkpatrick arrested the abusive man; the woman returned to her own home state and is studying towards a doctorate.

Tough days also happen in the police department — “when you try to do something right and you’re scrutinized and it really affects your family,” he says.

Kirkpatrick will miss his colleagues: “They all have something to give.”

“You learn from everybody,” he says.

“There’s pretty bright guys here like Capt. Carignan,” he says, adding praise for recently promoted Sgt. Adam Belville.

Of Chief Michael Fitzgerald, Kirkpatrick says, “He’s going to do very well for the town.”

Fitzgerald has people skills, Kirkpatrick continues. “This is one of those kind of jobs where you really need them.”

Kirkpatrick remarks on a change he has seen in officers. He points to a different work-life balance. Older officers, “they lived for the job a lot,” he observes, while the new generation of officers work their shift but also prioritize family and free time.

This makes for a better officer, he says.

“The town has no idea how really fortunate they are,” he says.

It comes down to family

Family is one of the reasons Kirkpatrick will leave busy Brattleboro for a quieter job: as a federal marshal staffing the federal court in Rutland.

Jane, a pharmacist and “a gem,” managed raising the couple’s two daughters, he says.

Although the couple made it to school events and jointly focused on their kids, Jane “picked up the slack,” says Kirkpatrick, who counts himself lucky to have married someone who didn’t flinch at his 16-hour days.

“Holidays don’t exist for us,” he says.

The couple’s daughters, Caroline and Rachel, are following in their mother’s footsteps, said their proud papa, who told them, “You’re not going to do what I do.”

Kirkpatrick believes deeply in the power of education.

Caroline is working toward her doctorate in pharmacy at University of Vermont. Rachel is working toward a pharmacy technician degree that she’s also combining with a psychology degree, Kirkpatrick says.

While the couple is proud to see their daughters “with feet under them and positioned to be part of society,” Kirkpatrick adds that much of that success comes down to family.

Kirkpatrick says he has patrolled Brattleboro long enough to see one generation follow the previous generation’s paths of crime or disregard for community.

As he leaves, he hopes Brattleboro residents will continue to support the department in its efforts to keep residents safe.

“We’re trying to do what’s right all the time, and we need them there to be with us, not against us, in this fight,” he says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #299 (Wednesday, April 1, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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