VERNON -- There's a new sheriff in town.
Tuesday marked the beginning of 24/7 patrols by Windham County Sheriff's Department in Vernon, as well as the official closure of the Vernon Police Department.
The change comes via a town vote and a $231,624 sheriff's department contract that took effect with the new fiscal year on Tuesday. But deputies had been in town for a week-long transition period, and the department's distinctive cruisers already have become a common sight on Vernon's roads.
"Our goal is to provide a high-visibility presence," said Lt. Mark Anderson, who leads the sheriff's new Vernon Division.
"We want people to see us and know that we're in the community and we're accessible," Anderson added. "We want people to feel that we are providing the service that they asked us to provide at Town Meeting."
With record turnout for a special Town Meeting on May 5, Vernon voters decided to close the town's longtime, municipal police department in favor of sheriff's coverage. It was primarily a cost-cutting move, as Sheriff Keith Clark had offered -- at voters' request -- patrols for 168 hours per week for nearly $67,000 less than the Vernon department's price for 140 hours.
The decision came amid cost-cutting due to the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
On June 24, sheriff's deputies arrived in Vernon to begin transition work with Matt Stains, Vernon's outgoing police chief.
"We began answering calls," Anderson said. "The goal was to allow the police officers from the (Vernon) police department to be able to close out any investigations that they could reasonably close out, to finish any paperwork without interruption and be able to relay any information that's in their heads that might not be in a case file."
He noted, as others have, that the remaining Vernon officers were willing partners in the hand-off.
"We've had a very receptive welcome from the community, from the Selectboard, even from the police department," Anderson said. "All things considered, it was an uncomfortable situation for those officers to be in. They were ultimately very professional, very courteous, very helpful. Even right up until 3:00 (Monday afternoon), we had a call come in, and they were still helping us get information about the call."
All Vernon officers went off-duty about 90 minutes after that.
Anderson is one of four full-time staffers from the sheriff's department who will be dedicated to Vernon: He is joined currently by Deputy Ian Tuttle and Deputy First Class Brett Gaylord, with the fourth position still to be assigned.
But officials stressed that, effective immediately, the sheriff's department has someone on duty at all times in Vernon. Other deputies will rotate into the mix when there is a need, Clark has said.
The sheriff is confident in Anderson's leadership in Vernon -- so much so that he promoted Anderson from sergeant to lieutenant on Tuesday afternoon. That is in part because of Anderson's new duties, but "also because of the work that he's done for me," Clark said. "Whenever there is a new project, when something needs to be done, Mark gets it done for us."
Anderson has logged a decade with the sheriff's department, where he was the first deputy sheriff in the state to become a drug-recognition expert. He previously has worked as a school-resource officer at Brattleboro Union High School and as a sexual assault and severe child abuse investigator for the Southeastern Unit for Special Investigations.
But Anderson also is very familiar with Vernon: He resides there, and he spent a short stint as a part-time police officer there in 2008. He wants to cultivate a strong connection with residents in the coming weeks and months.
"We very much believe in a community policing model, where solving the small problems can ultimately prevent the larger ones," Anderson said. "Being able to develop relationships with the community, being able to ultimately create an alliance with the community rather than an ‘us vs. them' mentality ... we're very open to the public coming to speak with us and reaching out to our deputies."
Sheriff's personnel have moved into the former Vernon police station on the bottom level of the town office.
"How to access us, how to find us, how to seek our help or just to talk to us will be very similar to the (former Vernon) police department," Anderson said. "The phone numbers have stayed the same. We're maintaining the same office space. There are a couple nuances that will be slightly different. We won't have an office clerk here during the daytime, but we're still on duty. We're generally going to be out in the community."
Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said officials will look into placing a call box on the outside of the office building so that visitors can contact a deputy who may be on the road.
There remain some transitional matters to take care of: For instance, three Vernon cruisers remain parked outside the station, and the sheriff's department has no need for them.
"We're going to have to figure out what to do with all of the (Vernon police) equipment," O'Donnell said, including the cruisers.
Anderson said that, for the most part, residents have not been surprised to see a sheriff's department cruiser appear after a call for help or service. In a few cases, however, he has had to explain the change.
O'Donnell noted that, aside from extensive media coverage of the police votes and subsequent transition, officials also sent notices to every household before the special Town Meeting in May.
"Certainly, the Selectboard has done everything they can possibly, humanly do to get the word out," she said.
For the most part, O'Donnell added on Tuesday, "People are paying attention, and they understand what's going on, and they wanted to have their voices heardhat's what happening today -- their voices have been heard."