Tompkins, a bachelor who has been Wardsboro’s laid-back and amiable first constable for the past year, is a tall, broad-shouldered cop with this lovable, 90-pound dog – find a movie producer, quick! Tompkins’ sidekick is an eager, tan and black German shepherd named Duke. Even the dog happens to have a Disney-worthy back story. “I adopted Duke,” he says, “after he flunked out of K-9 academy for not barking enough.”
At the end of the annual Town Meeting 13 months ago, the position of first constable remained unfilled, as did the position of second constable. Throughout Vermont, constables are generally elected by Town Meeting voters, but since Tompkins volunteered a short time later, he was appointed to the position by the selectboard in April 2010. Three weeks ago, he was elected to a second term by unanimous vote from everyone present at this year’s Town Meeting.
Although the loyal and protective Duke wants to go everywhere Tompkins goes, he doesn’t ride along in the Titan pickup on constabulary calls because, Tompkins says, “A dog could be a liability to the town.” Tompkins, on the other hand, has become one of Wardsboro’s greatest assets during his debut year as first constable.
Tompkins had a touch of red tape to clear in becoming constable because he had to transfer his existing certifications to Vermont, even though he was a lieutenant in the detective division at the department in Enfield, CT, and is a highly sought-after educator and consultant in the field of narcotics enforcement. He had previously headed a team of 12 detectives and handled nearly 500 complex and in-depth investigations of heinous crimes each year in a city of some 46,000 people, but Tompkins sat for the some of the nonwaivered tests and got the required physical exam, nonetheless.
To be a law enforcement officer in the state of Vermont, a person must be certified by the Criminal Justice Training Council. Candidates must pass an entrance test, and upon passing, must attend intense in-service training at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. (For all the details about the program, see www.vcjtc.state.vt.us/TrainingTalk.) Town constables have real law enforcement authority, a fact which many people do not know. They can detain and arrest lawbreakers, but Tompkins stresses, “It’s important to know the constitutionality of what you can and cannot do.”
Typically, constables are charged with service of legal notices, summonses and subpoenas; the destruction of unlicensed or dangerous dogs or wolf-hybrids, and of injured deer; removal of disorderly people from town meetings; collection of taxes (when no tax collector is elected); and other duties per the town’s charter. Historically, the office has deep roots in America’s small towns, having evolved from its British counterpart during the colonial era. Prior to the mid-1800s, local law enforcement was generally assigned to the village watchmen, since there were no police “departments” such as we know them now.
Tompkins sees the constable’s job of covering the 900-person community as more of a public safety service than as a law enforcement post, although he says, from time to time people slip up and refer to him as “the police.” However, since he walks like a cop, and talks like one, they are to be forgiven. “I volunteered to be constable as a way to keep my certifications active even though I am semiretired, and,” he says “I see it as a good benefit to the town I live in.” He is keen on broadening his expertise in all areas of law enforcement to boost his credentials in his outside consulting work as a police trainer, and he says that there is, in fact, much to learn about working in a rural environment. Being constable puts him on the front line, so to speak.
“I would say that the unique thing about rural policing is dealing with conflicts between people who are neighbors and who have known each other since childhood. You have to be more diplomatic in trying to resolve their problems. Most of the time what I do is just clear up a misunderstanding,” he says. His roster of calls includes the usual thought-to-be-dangerous roaming dogs and, sometimes, calls from desperate out-of-staters who cannot reach their family members living in Wardsboro. These usually end up being elderly parents, he says, who have just gone off for a ride someplace and are not actually missing.
Over the past year, he has checked out some 911 hang-ups, which turned out to be kids playing with the phone, and has investigated the occasional trespassing or property line matter. He has had to run down some stolen street signs and other missing town property, such as road salt taken from the town shed, thefts which are actually felonies in Vermont. The job entails the mundane as well: he does VIN verifications for auto registrations.
First constable is and isn’t a paid position. Town clerk Jackie Bedard says, “Tompkins receives $300 per year, the same salary as the selectboard members, and he gets mileage reimbursed from the town for official business.” Every year, the constable is required to sit for an additional 24 hours of training, on his Town time, to maintain certification.
Tompkins’ career began when he was just 19 years old, as an emergency medical technician for a large family-owned ambulance service in Connecticut, before transferring to an urban-district emergency medical communications center.
After graduating with an associates degree in criminal justice, Tompkins continued his higher education, completing a master’s degree at Western New England College. He says, “I was the first one in that police department to have a master’s, beating out my captain by just a few months before he got his degree.” At one point, while toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer, he took the law school admissions tests, and, in the end, decided to stick with police work, eventually becoming a detective.
His record in narcotics enforcement, some of it as an undercover agent, led to his selection for Connecticut’s state narcotics task force. Tompkins is on the board of directors of the Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association of Connecticut, a drug-education organization, and he coordinates the group’s annual conference. He is an adjunct faculty member of the Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force Training program, a collaboration of St. Petersburg College in Florida and the National Guard.
Tompkins both teaches and consults independently in specialized areas pertaining to narcotics offenses, covering the latest in accreditation for law enforcement agencies, drug trends, drug investigations, designer drugs, and drug horticulture, meaning grow-your-own operations. Until recently, his profession as a trainer has taken him all over the country, giving him a chance not only to teach, but also to learn about the methods and best practices of a variety of police departments and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
In addition to his duties in Wardsboro, Tompkins is working on building a retinue of new clients for his consulting work because deep cutbacks in government funding have seriously reduced the budgets of the organizations and agencies with which he has long been affiliated.
Tompkins, who is partly of Native American descent from the Penobscot nation in Maine, says the most rewarding aspect of being town constable is just being an active part of the community, that is, he says, being able to talk to and interact with people. “I think there are a lot of things that happen in rural areas that people just don’t want to complain about. They don’t want to bother the state police.”
He brings reassuring news. “Overall, I’d say Wardsboro is a safe town to live in,” he says. “Our biggest safety problem is speeding.” Tompkins, who lives on Townshend Dam Road on property that was once his grandparents’, also volunteers for the town rescue squad. Besides his valuable EMT training, he hopes to use his grant-writing skills to help the department obtain funding to replace its aging vehicles and update its equipment and gear.
Always taking notes about things that he can use to teach others, Tompkins has made some interesting observations about how ambulance work, like crime, can be somewhat different in the country than it is in urban areas. “In the city,” he says, “the rescue team kept orange highway cones handy to set out in the street to block traffic or to mark an emergency zone, for example. But out here, they put them at the turns and forks on the back roads so that other emergency responders won’t get lost on the way to the call.”
A casual conversation with Tompkins will get you several good crime stories and a few hilarious “stupid criminal” tales, as well. Hence, it was impossible not to ask what are his favorite cop shows on television. “Oh, I don’t watch those shows,” he says with a pish-posh laugh. “They are so unreal…the timeline of how things really happen.” When really pressed, though, he admits to being caught up in two crime-drama series. One is the Emmy-award winning show “The Shield,” which aired on FX Networks, and the other is “The Wire,” which was on HBO; both series ran from 2002 to ‘08. Tompkins says, “I can tell there must have been police professionals working on the scripts because they were more true to life.” If anyone would know, it would be Tompkins.