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Giving back

Newly promoted Lt. Robert Perkins sees his work as serving the community

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Police Department promoted officer Robert Perkins to the rank of lieutenant in a short ceremony on Dec. 6.

A lieutenant slot is rare, because those positions usually open only when another officer retires, said Capt. Michael Fitzgerald.

Most officers usually have 10 to 15 years of service before promotion to the rank of lieutenant, said Fitzgerald.

Choosing a lieutenant takes more than checking the applicant’s seniority: The department also considers an applicant’s character, work ethic, leadership abilities, decision-making skills, and level of empathy toward fellow officers and the public.

Fitzgerald likened a lieutenant to being “a conductor” able to meld multiple pieces — community, safety, municipal ordinances, state laws, federal laws — into one cohesive piece.

The promotion process is strenuous and complex, said Fitzgerald. Applicants write a letter of intent stating why they are good candidates for the position, complete a timed written exam and oral exam, and interview with Police Chief Eugene Wrinn and Fitzgerald.

To remain neutral, said Fitzgerald, the oral board consisted of representatives from Rescue Inc., the Fire Department, the Department of Public Works, and police officers from agencies outside Brattleboro.

“It’s a very, very, hard process,” said Fitzgerald.

Three officers applied for the one available open lieutenant position.

The department now has four lieutenants, including Perkins.

Whether people view police officers positively or negatively, said Lt. Robert Perkins, “[Police] are the line between things being completely out of control and society functioning normally. That’s the line between chaos and order.”

Perkins admits he was “one of those kids” that former Police Chief Richard Guthrie had to chase more than a few times.

But, he also remembers his neighborhood on the receiving end of the Police and Fire Departments’ holiday toy drive.

That’s the memory that stands out, said Perkins.

Perkins views his work as “giving back to this community.”

Grew up in public housing

According to Perkins, he grew up in public housing at Moore Court. His mother, then single, tried to shield him from some of his family’s financial problems, said Perkins, who found out later that his family had benefited from services such as food stamps.

He also attended the town’s Department of Parks and Recreation summer camp while his mother worked as a nurse at the former Linden Lodge nursing home on Linden Street.

Perkins has more than 20 years’ service in the armed forces and law enforcement under his belt. Still, he says he hadn’t always planned on becoming a police officer.

“I just fell into it,” Perkins admits. He said he never wanted to sit behind a desk; he preferred spending time outdoors.

Perkins, 46, signed up for the armed forces when he was 17. Because of his age, his mother had to give her permission. He served in the Army and the Navy before transitioning to civilian law enforcement in 1992.

He left the BPD in 1996 for a stint with the Coast Guard, working the waters between southern Florida and Cuba. In 2001, feeling that his military service was complete, Perkins rejoined the BPD.

Families’ challenges

Perkins said the town must respond to a variety of problems, from drugs and other ravages of a hard economy, which can spread pain like ripples through families.

It’s challenging, Perkins said. The people he witnesses struggling are not strangers, but rather neighbors.

Perkins said he likes working third shift, as he sees a different group of citizens.

The lieutenant said the night shift allows “more freedom of movement,” and requires earning his superiors’ trust to fulfill his duties effectively.

“It’s a big day [for Lt. Perkins],” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a long process.”

Fitzgerald said the promotion process is so taxing because of the increased visibility and responsibility of the position. He said Perkins will now need to weigh his actions in the context of the needs of the town, the town manager, the Department, and the community, said Fitzgerald.

“What problem is your solution going to cause?” said Fitzgerald rhetorically.

The BPD has 24 staff members: police chief, captain, three shift lieutenants, one detective lieutenant, three sergeants, 15 patrol officers, and two detectives. The department has three open patrol officer positions and has started the interview process.

Rigorous training

Fitzgerald said the BPD tries to keep the officers it recruits for “as long as we can.”

That’s because multiple resources and time go into preparing a new officer.

According to Fitzgerald, it takes approximately 31 weeks of training before an officer can work independently, such as on patrol. Those weeks break down into 16 weeks at the Police Academy, three post-academy training weeks, and 12 weeks of field training where the officer shadows a senior officer.

The BPD hires officers based on interviews, background checks, polygraph exam, oral exam, and physical exam. Once the trainee is hired, the department pays for his or her academy training, equipment, gear, weapon, and uniform. The hiring process takes about three months.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #182 (Wednesday, December 12, 2012).

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