Winhall Police and Rescue chief, Jeffery Whitesell, retires

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WINHALL — Author, hunter and fisherman Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today."

Those words inspire Jeffery Whitesell, 54, of North Bennington, who is set to retire from his job as chief of Winhall Police and Rescue on June 19 after nearly 23 years with the department and 34 years in law enforcement. The quote hangs outside of his office.

Whitesell started his career with the Bennington Police Department, where he was a dispatcher and worked part time during college. He was employed by police departments in Wilmington then Manchester before taking positions as truck enforcement officer and district inspector at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. He also served as a part-time officer in Winhall while employed at the DMV.

"I really enjoyed working here and becoming a part of the Winhall community," he said in an interview.

When the chief position opened up earlier on, Whitesell was not interested. He said a man from New York was hired but left after about a month. The Select Board then approached Whitesell about leaving the DMV and he agreed to take on the job.

One of his proudest moments as chief was adding emergency medical services to the department around 2000. The community does not have its own ambulance service — groups come in from Londonderry, Manchester or Stratton.

Whitesell has a background in EMS, having run a first responder group for Norwich University while in college and been on Northfield Ambulance. He suggested the police department offer the service and the Select Board supported the project.

"I don't think it had ever been done, at least in the Northeast, until we did it," he said. "There had been some officers who were cross trained here and there but no other department jumped in and made it an integral part of their response."

All officers in Winhall are trained to be emergency medical technicians. They carry both police and emergency medical equipment on calls.

Whitesell described Winhall as "a bit of an anomaly," as towns large enough to have police departments typically also have ambulance services.

"We're in an area that's pretty remote," he said. "So there was a real hole here."

The department is "very community oriented, service oriented," Whitesell said, and it was "a natural transition" for officers to take on EMS responsibilities. He noted that all the training required for both roles can be challenging at times.

"So there's a real high level of commitment," he said.

The department is made up of eight officers including the chief, one part-time officer and a full-time administrative employee.

When Whitesell first started with the department, the station had no computers, just typewriters. Getting technologically up to date involved some effort.

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"It took some building," Whitesell said. "It took some vision, you know, but I knew that the department had potential to do great things and it has, and we just progressed and we progressed and stayed current with everything and got the computer system hooked into the state system, which is very, very helpful for us. That was an accomplishment. That was an achievement."

Around 2000, the department started having around-the-clock service, going from two 10-hour shifts to two 12-hour shifts.

Around the same time, the department began providing policing for the Stratton Mountain Resort community. Whitesell said their partnership is "really great."

"There's a good portion of the resort and their second homes that are in Winhall to begin with and Act 250 requires the Stratton Corporation to provide policing services," he said, referring to state permitting.

Many of his challenges came early on in his role as chief.

"I took over a department that didn't have the best reputation, had some real personnel issues in the past," he said. "I would say it took a solid decade for me to finally gain the trust back of the community and the support of the community because it had been such a revolving door up to the point that I came with different officers."

One issue involved compensation. Whitesell said officers were not being offered salaries and benefits considered competitive with other departments.

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"When you fall behind in pay and benefits, you're bound to limit yourself to good candidates," he said. "It took some time. It didn't happen overnight."

Whitesell called the department's current hiring process "very, very selective."

"Community-based policing is something we pride ourselves on and service to our community," he said. "We call it the Winhall way of policing."

Officers respond to all calls from community members to see how they can help, Whitesell said. That could include pointing someone to resources and knowing if follow up is needed.

About five or six years ago, the department started the Winhall Community Food Shelf, which has since turned into a separate nonprofit. One of the two distribution points is a shed at the police station.

"We keep it stocked regularly," Whitesell said. "That was a nice achievement."

Lt. Derrick Tienken will begin his term as interim chief effective upon Whitesell's departure.

"With any luck, he will remain the permanent chief after his interim status," Whitesell said. "He's got 100 percent support from our staff and the department."

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Whitesell said he likes to see promotions from within an organization if possible. He believes it helps with morale and makes community members feel like they will be getting a consistent, high level of service.

Whitesell said he worked with Tienken for the past two years to get him ready for the transition. Responsibilities of the chief include grant writing, handling management and personnel issues, and attending meetings with other state and county organizations.

"I really appreciate the support that the town's given the police department and how they've worked with us," Whitesell said. "I think it's a great thing we've got and we're looking to continue that tradition by hiring Lt. Tienken as next chief. It's been a pleasure. It's time for some fresh leadership and some fresh ideas."

Whitesell had been planning his retirement for a few years but picked out a date early last month. He turns 55 in September and can collect retirement benefits.

His plan is to enjoy retirement and spend more time with his wife and children. His daughter lives in Las Vegas and son lives in Tampa.

"I want to take some time off and take a deep breath," Whitesell said.

To new officers, he would advise: "Believe in your training and listen to your field training officers. Even more so, listen to the public. Be as engaged with the community as you can

possibly get."

Policing is more than just handing out tickets, Whitesell said. He looks at it as a way to affect the community on different levels.

"It's horrific to see what's going on in Minneapolis," he said of the city where a black man named George Floyd was recently killed in police custody and inspired protests throughout the United States. "It's terrible, terrible stuff. Fortunately, I don't believe Vermont has that problem."

Whitesell said police officers in the Green Mountain State are all trained at the Vermont Police Academy. He sees that as an advantage as it provides consistency statewide.

His department recently weighed in on Floyd's death, calling the video of his arrest "cruel and difficult to watch."

"Actions such as these need to be strongly condemned by law enforcement agencies and officers across the country," Whitesell and Tienken wrote. "The members of the Winhall Police Department are disgusted by these actions. Kneeling on the neck of an arrested person is not a practice taught to or used by Winhall Officers."

They said the department continues to provide officers with updated training sessions on de-escalation techniques and proper response to resistance, and frequent training in fair and impartial policing.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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