BRATTLEBORO—Norma Hardy decided to become a police officer while working for EMS in New York City during the 1980s crack epidemic.
Until then, her goal had been to become a lawyer.
But Hardy — who steps into her new role as police chief here on July 28, making her the first Black woman in the state to hold that rank — realized that a law career wouldn’t allow her to stand on the front lines of people’s lives in the way that she wanted.
“There were so many things I couldn’t do that I thought I would like to be able to do to help people that were just basically trapped in this situation,” she said. “So it just became my calling.”
This decision took Hardy to the Police Department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where she served for 26 years.
On Monday, Town Manager Peter Elwell announced the hiring of Hardy, who told The Commons that she feels excited to start her new job.
“When I saw this opportunity, I was like, ‘Oh, you know, that’s something I’d like to do,’” she said.
Hardy fell in love with the southern Vermont region during vacations to Dover. That love has transferred to Brattleboro as well, and she said the town has welcomed her in the hiring process.
“But it was like, it just was meant to be because as soon as I got there [Brattleboro], I just fell in love with it, and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful place,” she said on Monday from Virginia. “I think we can do great things there.”
In a press release, Elwell said he is eager to begin working with Hardy, both in her role as police chief and as a member of the town’s senior management team.
“Chief Hardy brings to Brattleboro a wealth of law enforcement leadership experience and a demonstrated commitment to work with the community on recalibrating the roles and expectations of the police and our civilian community partners,” said Elwell. “She also brings lived experience outside of law enforcement that will help advance the Town’s work on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
According to a press release, Elwell and a selection panel conducted screening interviews on Zoom with seven finalists from a field of 23 applicants. That panel, and a panel of community members, conducted in-depth interviews on Zoom, winnowing the field to four semi-finalists.
The Selectboard interviewed the two finalists in person. The town department heads, Brattleboro Police Department employees, and Elwell also met with them.
Elwell said they selected Hardy in mid-June, and the town completed a thorough background check before finalizing the terms of Hardy’s employment this week.
Hardy attended the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and has also completed advanced law enforcement leadership, personnel and finance administration, security assessment, and emergency response management.
She entered the police force at age 32 — older than most rookies, she said.
Hardy noted that the additional work and life experience formed a good foundation for the rest of her career. Others in her class shared the later pursuit of law enforcement.
“I think that that’s what’s carried me throughout my career,” she said. “It wasn’t that we were just coming to be the police straight out of school.”
“Some of us already had families, and I think it made for a good base to start at,” Hardy continued.
Rising through the ranks on the World Trade Center site
The Port Authority Police Department oversees all New York and New Jersey transportation services, including bridges, tunnels, and airports. The World Trade Center is also under the purview of the Port Authority.
According to the press release, after 10 years of service as a police officer serving at a variety of Port Authority facilities, she was promoted to construction sergeant at the World Trade Center site in 2002.
In 2006, she was promoted to executive officer at the World Trade Center site and, in 2008, to police captain and commanding officer at the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.
Hardy was then promoted to police inspector and Northern Zone commander in 2011 and chief of Port Authority bridges, tunnels, and New Jersey airports in 2013.
While serving as the first female chief of the Port Authority, Hardy had approximately 500 officers under her command.
For Hardy, being a chief with the Port Authority was the best learning experience.
“I came up through the ranks — so, I didn’t come in from the outside, I started out as a patrol officer,” she said. “I survived the first bombing of the World Trade Center [in 1993], and then I just worked my way up from there.”
Hardy received numerous internal commendations and external awards during her career with the Port Authority, including the 2014 Officer of the Year award from the International Association of Women Police and the 2016 Trailblazer Award from the National Organization of Black Women in Law Enforcement, according to the press release.
She is also a published poet.
Hardy retired in 2018 from the Port Authority Police Department. In an interview that same year with WABC-TV, Hardy recalled being a rookie and responding to the 1993 terrorist bombing at the World Trade Center.
“1993 was my trial by fire,” she said, adding that the experience taught her “not only to be a good police officer, but also to be compassionate to people.”
In that same interview, Hardy also reflected on her career and the working relationships she formed.
“I was happy when I reached sergeant, and I kind of thought, ‘OK, I reached sergeant, that’s pretty good,’” she said. “But I was fortunate to have good mentors and my chiefs that believed in me."
Now, Hardy is the mentor.
“If I’m fortunate enough to have gotten where I am, then you have to bring people with you,” she said. “So I try to bring people up with me."
A vision of community policing
The prospect of becoming police chief in Brattleboro brought Hardy out of retirement.
Well ... semi-retirement, anyway.
Post-active duty, Hardy has remained involved in multiple law enforcement organizations focused on women in law enforcement and organizations supporting children and teens. She has also maintained many speaking engagements.
“I try to stay up to date on law enforcement issues because I do mentor quite a few officers still. They still call me and want some advice,” she said.
Hardy sits on the board of directors of Feel the Music! The nonprofit uses music and arts to help people in New York City’s five boroughs who have experienced trauma, illness, or loss.
She looks forward to connecting with the wider Brattleboro community and hopes to bridge the gap between the department and anyone who has had negative experiences with police.
“I believe that the police should be seen out in their community — not seen as a militarized force that’s coming through but, rather, someone where people can feel protected and feel safe to approach also,” Hardy said.
She believes in the concept and practice of community policing — a strategy that she said deters crime and helps community members feel safe when it is done correctly.
The concept and practice has evolved over the years, especially in bigger cities, she said, adding that it will take time for her to determine where Brattleboro is with community policing and where to go next.
Former Police Chief Michael “Gunny” Fitzgerald, who retired at the start of the year, instituted the practice of community policing in Brattleboro.
In interviews, Fitzgerald often said that the community couldn’t arrest its way out of many of its citizens’ struggles, such as the opioid crisis.
Hardy said Fitzgerald’s work around community policing impressed her. She said she is anticipating speaking with him and swapping ideas.
Hardy is also vocal about her support for the staff of the Brattleboro Police Department and wanted them to know she’s in their corner.
“The bad things are always what makes the news,” she said — but officers who are “putting on those uniforms every single day, just doing their job — nobody looks at that.”
She said she wants “to bring to the forefront” the recognition that police officers “have families and goals and hopes and everything else, and that they’re not robots.”
Leadership that’s ‘tough but fair’
Hardy acknowledged that addressing the issues surrounding policing in the United States will be hard work. But it’s work she’s ready to tackle.
“Me being a Black woman, too, and being stopped, and being racially profiled throughout my life — it didn’t make me hate the cops, but I always wanted to just make it different for people in my community,” she said.
The officers at the Brattleboro Police Department can expect Hardy to be a “tough but fair” leader.
“If I had to punish, I had to punish,” she said — but “I don’t have to always be a hammer, and everything is not a nail.”
When appropriate, Hardy has preferred to have her officers use mistakes as learning experiences. She has found that those she disciplined who took the learning to heart became better police officers.
She said an open-door policy has served her and the officers she works with well throughout her career.
“I don’t like being someone that is in the office that’s just the name on the door,” she said. “No one is going to really respect you or want to work for you if you separate yourself that much from them and their everyday challenges.”
Addressing community needs
Recruiting and retaining officers will be a significant focus for Hardy.
Multiple officers have left the department recently, leading to a decision by the department in May to cut back on patrol hours [“Brattleboro police, sorely understaffed, cut patrol shifts,” News, June 9].
Hardy said departments across the country are understaffed. She hopes her leadership will inspire more officers here to stay.
Recruiting will be big, too, she said — a lot of people don’t want to become police officers anymore.
“Cops and firemen, that’s what children would be when they were playing,” she said. “Unfortunately, the cop spot has kind of disappeared.”
Next on her list is meeting with community members to discuss the significant issues facing the town, like the opioid crisis.
One area of focus on the community front for Hardy will be supporting kids — “particularly kids that are just going into those teenage years” — who will need even more support after the pandemic, she said.
“Now they’re going to have a little bit more freedom, and they’re going to need guidance to be able to deal with all that freedom,” said Hardy, adding that she has numerous ideas for programs geared toward young people.
On previous visits to town, Hardy said she was impressed by the number of people willing to step up and serve their community. The number of programs in the area focused on addressing community needs also amazed her.
She believes that Brattleboro is ahead of many other communities with its human services programming.
“As the police chief, I want to focus on public service — not just simply the law enforcement aspect of it — and that is a fine line,” she said.
To the people of Brattleboro, Hardy said she will always strive for balance. She hopes people will understand that she is more than a police chief — like her officers, she’s not a robot.
She said she treats people with respect, and she expects it in return.
“Sometimes the difference of a situation can change just by someone listening,” she said. “We have people talking at each other all the time. Nothing really gets accomplished because no one’s listening.”
“I’m going to try my best to listen,” she said.
Hardy is moving to Brattleboro with her partner and their three dogs, a family unit she describes as the “little pack.” Hardy also has grown children and a huge family, many of whom will visit Brattleboro for her swearing-in.
Hardy took a moment to imagine the Brattleboro Police Department a year from now.
“Having a mature and dedicated force — and having the community feeling that they can actually brag about their police department,” she said.