Government & Politics

Hartford police union urges town to appoint the acting chief to head the department

Hartford police officers are urging municipal officials to hire Acting Police Chief Connie Kelley as the department’s leader. Photo via Hartford Vermont Police Department Facebook

Editor’s note: This story by Patrick Adrian first appeared in the Valley News on Dec. 20.

After nearly two years without a full-fledged police chief, Hartford police officers are urging municipal officials to hire Acting Police Chief Connie Kelley as the department’s leader, calling her leadership key to the department’s morale.

Last month the Hartford police union, New England Police Benevolent Association Local 405, voted unanimously to support Kelley for the police chief position in Hartford. The department has not had a full-fledged chief since February 2021, when then-Chief Phil Kasten resigned after six years to move back to Maryland with his family.

Kelley, a 23-year veteran and the department’s third-longest-serving member, was named acting police chief in May, following the departure of interim chief Brad Vail, who left in February to become the chief of police in Barre, Vermont.

Local union president Daniel Solomita, a sergeant in the Hartford department, credited Kelley for bringing stability to the department at a time when staffing vacancies were mounting and officer morale was at a critical low.

In addition to Vail’s departure, Robert Cormier, former interim director of police services, left the department in May to become the police chief in Belfast, Maine. At the time of Kelley’s takeover, the 23-member department was down six positions — the police chief, a deputy police chief and four police officers.

“We were routinely running 16-hour shifts at a time, with only eight-hour breaks in between,” Solomita told the Valley News. “It was bad for our morale and was destroying our families.”

Solomita, speaking to Kelley’s leadership, equated her to “the glue that has helped the department hold together,” saying she accepted the role of acting chief out of a sense of duty to help the department.

In November, the local police union submitted a letter to the Hartford Selectboard to express their support for making Kelley the full-fledged chief.

“She has had our backs,” Solomita said. “And we wanted to make sure that we have her back as well.”

According to Solomita, Kelley did not apply for the chief’s position until more recently, when members of the police union expressed their interest in having her fill the role permanently.

“She had no idea whether she wanted the position, but she wanted to do right by our officers,” Solomita said.

According to Solomita, Kelley’s application was initially rejected because the application deadline had already passed. But on Dec. 13, the Hartford Selectboard voted 5-1 to direct Acting Town Manager Gail Ostrout “to accept the application of one current town employee for the position of Hartford’s Chief of Police.”

The selectboard did not disclose the name of the town employee in its motion, but Solomita said he believes the application was Kelley’s.

On Tuesday, Selectboard Chair Michael Hoyt told the Valley News that the town “expects to name a (police) chief by mid-January, provided an offer is accepted,” though the offer has not yet been formally sent.

Solomita said many Hartford officers are worried that Kelley could be overlooked, noting that Vail had also expressed an interest in the chief’s job but was not chosen.

The local police union had similarly voiced its support for hiring Vail, who “had 34 years of institutional knowledge as an officer” and was highly credentialed, but the union’s support “clearly fell on deaf ears,” Solomita said.

“We don’t feel heard by the town,” the union president said. “We hope they will do the right thing by hiring Kelley, but we (worry) that they are making the same mistake again.”

Solomita said Vail was not told why he was not chosen as the police chief. The Valley News attempted to reach Vail by phone for comment but did not receive a reply by deadline.

In Hartford, the town manager hires the police chief. At the time of Vail’s candidacy, the town manager was Tracy Yarlott-Davis, who stepped down as manager earlier this month after being placed on administrative leave in October. Ostrout, the town finance director, is now the acting town manager, and Paula Nulty, the human resources director, is acting assistant manager.

Hoyt, in an email response to the Valley News, praised Kelley’s performance as acting chief and spoke positively about the union’s letter of support for her.

“I think it is a credit to Hartford that we have excellent employees who can assume greater responsibilities in times of transition without any loss in the quality of services provided to the town,” Hoyt said in an email.

If hired, Kelley would be the first female in town history to be the full-fledged chief of police.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had a typo in the headline.

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