ST. ALBANS CITY — On July 1, St. Albans City will have a new interim police chief.
Maurice Lamothe, who currently oversees dispatching at the St. Albans Police Dept. (SAPD), will assume the chief’s duties.
Lamothe is a familiar figure in Franklin County. He grew up in St. Albans and spent 20 years with the Vermont State Police (VSP), all but six of them at the St. Albans Barracks. For five years prior to his retirement in 2019, he was the barracks commander.
The current chief, Gary Taylor, announced his retirement in May, just prior to the start of a nationwide resurgence in efforts to reform the police and how officers interact with the public.
That movement has reached St. Albans, where there have been calls to examine police funding, hiring and operations.
Originally, Taylor had intended to serve through the rest of the year to give the city time to recruit a replacement. He will continue on at the SAPD until December, but will be focused on special projects.
“A lot of this activity is calling for cultural shifts and changes,” Taylor said. “Being in the last six months of my job, it makes perfect sense we should be raising up the next leader of the police department, even if it’s on an interim basis.”
“The nation’s at a crossroads right now,” said Lamothe. The challenges departments are facing across the country are also challenges here in St. Albans, in his view.
“It’s never been more important than it is now that we do this as a community,” he said. “I’m going to listen to what people have to say and what they expect, and we’ll make adjustments if we need to.”
Lamothe spoke generally about use of force issues and the ways to address them. He has only been with the SAPD since September 2019 and the use of force incidents which have come to light in the past several months took place before he joined the force.
“It’s all about training. It’s all about showing them different ways of dealing with people, outside of using hands on force,” Lamothe said of police officers generally. “There are deescalation tactics.”
Ideally, officers should be able to use their command presence and verbal skills to get people to comply, he said. “They’re not going out there with the intent of using force.”
Officers also need to have the skills to deal with people who may be in a mental health crisis or under the influence of drugs, he explained.
St. Albans was the first police department in the state to have an embedded mental health counselor, for which Lamothe praised the department. Similarly, VSP’s St. Albans Barracks was the first VSP barracks to have an embedded counselor. Unfortunately, the counselors can’t be everywhere, he said, so officers have to have the skills to deal with mental health crises, which are an increasing share of police calls.
Officers also need to know how best to handle people under the influence of drugs. “That can cause people to react in an erratic manner,” Lamothe said.
All of the SAPD’s officers have the highest level of training available through the Vermont Police Academy, which means going to outside sources for additional training, he explained. Deescalation training for all SAPD officers was already in the works when the pandemic hit, and COVID-19 has caused some delays to that training.
Asked about recruiting and the need to recruit officers who are good with people, Lamothe said, “If you have good people skills, this is the job for you.”
What police officers do all day, every day, is deal with people, he said. “Unfortunately, the majority of time we’re dealing with people it is at a bad time in their lives.”
In addition to deescalation training, the SAPD made numerous changes to policies and procedures in the wake of three use of force incidents. The department has long required officers to report all uses of force. Now every report is investigated and all officers present when force is used are required to fill out a report, not just the highest ranking officer. Any officer observing an excessive use of force is required to intervene.
The SAPD also added an additional commander to the night shift, where all three use of force incidents occurred.
“I think we’re doing all the right steps,” Lamothe said. “It’s a continuous process to try to make yourself better.”
The SAPD is in the midst of an evaluation of its hiring and training practices.
Lamothe said he sat on hundreds of hiring committees while at VSP.
“I’d like to say we don’t hire people who shouldn’t be doing this job,” he said, adding that the wrong people get hired in every job. “You hope that your hiring process weeds out some of them before they get hired.”
In April, an SAPD officer was charged with kidnapping and assault in an alleged attempt to silence a woman he had sexually abused as a teenager, when she was a child. That incident drew additional attention to hiring practices at the department.
When it comes to hiring, Lamothe said, “I’m open to changing anything.”
“There’s always room for improvement and change,” he said. “Change can often be a little scary for people, but change is always good.”
“We are moving forward and making positive changes,” Lamothe said. “We are looking at the way we handle ourselves.”
Lamothe said he joined the SAPD in part because it was in his hometown, but also because he had a good relationship with the SAPD and its officers during his time with VSP. “They have a lot to offer,” he said. “They have a lot of good officers with a lot of experience, particularly the commanders.”
People who have questions or input should get in touch with him, he said. “We are going to do our best to stand up and serve the people of this area.”
For his part, Taylor was pleased with the choice of interim successor. “Moe’s an excellent leader. He has an abundant amount of experience,” Taylor said. “I think he’ll do a great job.”
City manager Dominic Cloud said the city will still be conducting a nationwide search for a new chief.