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Hail to the Chief

Departing words to the department from Burlington's top cop


Published September 24, 2003 at 7:55 p.m.

Outgoing Burlington Police Chief Alana Ennis got a flash of deja vu recently. Almost five years ago to the day she was standing in Contois Auditorium in the spot where her two deputy chiefs stood last week, fielding questions from the public about why she should be the Queen City's next police chief. That Burlington was able to attract a candidate with Ennis' law enforcement stature -- she was then police chief at Duke University -- was a testament to Burlington's own national reputation. It didn't hurt that the North Carolina native was recruited during the summer.

Five Vermont winters didn't scare this Southerner off. Even so, Ennis' departure this week was not unexpected. Her daughter, who graduates from high school next spring, has only applied to colleges in North Carolina and Ennis says she wants to live closer to her family again. And with nearly 30 years of police work under her belt -- she recently accepted a security job with General Dynamics -- the chief says it's time to pass the baton to the next generation of leaders rising through the ranks.

"Personally, I think you can only be effective as chief for a certain period of time," Ennis says. "It was time to move on and keep the department moving." That she has done, over five years promoting a total of 18 officers, most of whom are now in command positions. Among them is Thomas Tremblay, who has been deputy chief of administration since May and served as operations chief for the last three years. On Monday, the City Council ratified the selection of Tremblay as Burlington's new police chief.

Ennis arrived at a time when the Burlington Police Department needed to modernize in order to reflect the changing face of the city. An influx of immigrants was dramatically altering the city's racial and ethnic makeup. A burgeoning heroin trade was becoming front-page news. Meanwhile, rising costs coupled with belt-tightening at the state and federal levels were making it difficult to grow the department's nearly $7 million budget. And the city was discussing a new approach to law enforcement called community-based policing, which combats crime through neighborhood involvement and relationship building. Two years ago, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 forced the department to not only divert precious resources to homeland security but also to rethink the parameters of public safety and emergency preparedness.

Last week, Ennis sat down with Seven Days to reflect on her brief but significant tenure as Burlington's top cop and speculate on the work in store for her successor.

SEVEN DAYS: What were the initial challenges you faced coming into a new department?

Alana Ennis: Well, everyone wanted community policing, but no one could really tell me what that meant to them. Everyone had their own definition… Every community is different, so you have to do what's in the best interest of that community. It's all about partnering with the people there and what they are willing to do, because it's a partnership to solve problems.

SD: How well has it been accomplished?

AE: I think we've been pretty successful. And it's not due to me. All I did was have some of the ideas. The people in the department solidified them and we reorganized the department to facilitate that.

SD: Has the department moved away a bit from community-based policing?

AE: No, we haven't moved away from it. It is difficult to maintain because resources are scarce and we still have to answer 9-1-1 calls. Then you've got ongoing nuisance issues like noise. We suffer from lack of staffing and [the difficulty of] remaining up to full strength. We have 20-year retirement, so people are out the door in 20 years, which is great. But it has presented some challenges as well. We are very selective in the people we select to do this job because we want it to be a good fit -- for them and for us -- and we want the kind of individual who is very service-oriented. We like to hire people who have life experiences, particularly people that have come from the service industry. Teachers are great. Some of our most impressive candidates have come from that area because they're used to dealing with people, they're used to solving problems, and it's about customer service and treating people with respect.

SD: Policing has traditionally been a male-dominated profession. Did that pose challenges for you?

AE: I think it was more of an issue that I was an outsider. I was an unknown quantity… But I was pleasantly surprised. New Englanders have a reputation of being a little cold to outsiders and it's certainly undeserved, because I saw none of that here. Everybody was really warm and friendly and open and made my family and me feel so welcome here. We really have been embraced by this community and, in that sense, it's very hard to leave.

SD: The demographics of Burlington have changed quite a lot during your tenure. What has that meant for you and the department?

AE: Well, we want to create the kind of department that reflects the community. In order to do that, you have to eliminate distrust, and sometimes it's just built into some ethnic communities… We decided our focus would be on creating more diversity in the agency to reflect that diversity. But it's difficult, because certain cultures come into this country and have certain biases toward police based on experiences in their own communities overseas. So it's up to us to try to overcome that. What we did was hire a group of people from those communities and let them help us bridge that gap.

SD: You also came into this job with the perspective of having done law enforcement in other states. Are there laws or statutes you think could be changed to make policing more effective in Vermont?

AE: Well, there are laws that surprised me when I got here, like the lack of gun laws. [Vermont] restricts long guns, but they don't have many gun laws. It's unbelievable. But what's interesting about that is, when you approach the Legislature about changing that, then you look at the statistics, people really aren't killing each other with guns to that extent. Not like they are [in states] where they have stricter gun laws. So, there's not the political will to do anything about that.

SD: Any other laws that make police work more difficult in Vermont than elsewhere?

AE: The laws surrounding Fourth Amendment-type issues are narrower than [in] the federal Constitution, where search-and-seizure is concerned. So, yeah, it does make it difficult.

SD: One criticism leveled against you as chief was that you were not more visible in the community.

AE: Well, some people thought I should be out walking a beat. You can't be out walking a beat and getting grants and doing all that stuff. There's just not enough hours in the day.

SD: So that's not a fair criticism?

AE: I don't think so. Because if you ask other people, they would say I've been highly visible in the community. I've served on boards, I've been active in civic groups… I have been out on patrol and I do ride [with officers] on occasion, but, again, there's only so many hours in the day. I wish I had the time to do that more frequently. But it's hard balancing everything. If I'm not here, I'm not focused on what we're doing about the lack of resources, which is my job.

SD: Addressing the lack of resources was your biggest task?

AE: Oh, yes. Definitely.

SD: Right in the middle of your tenure as police chief came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Did that change the way you approached your job?

AE: Absolutely. We're responsible for the airport, so everything that's tied into airport security affects us hugely. The TSA [Transportation Security Administration], the new FAA requirements… At one time they had more TSA agents out there [at the airport] than I had in my whole department.

SD: Longer term, have there been other homeland security duties that you've been called upon to do?

AE: Yeah. It's really interesting because we're so close to the border. And while we don't have responsibility for that, there are things we need to be more diligent about in the community, so it's been an educational process. We've been involved in the homeland security task force statewide… It's a matter of training, it's a matter of developing plans for the city. We have that anyway, but we've had to look at it differently -- like where are we most vulnerable -- in ways we haven't considered before.

SD: Has your department gotten additional funding for homeland security?

AE: We haven't seen it yet.

SD: In recent years, accusations of racial profiling have been a problem for other police forces. Has public sensitivity to this issue had an impact on your officers in any way, perhaps making them a bit gun-shy in certain situations?

AE: I wouldn't say they are gun-shy. The point is that we educate officers not to do anything that makes them vulnerable to it. Like if you have probable cause… reasonable suspicion before you do a search, then that limits it. Yes, we have had people allege it and cases have been dismissed. But we do take those cases very seriously. It's something we look at very intensely, and not just with racial issues.

SD: The City Council has placed a lot of emphasis in recent years on fighting quality-of-life crimes. Has that changed the focus of your department?

AE: Well, that's what community policing is all about. It's about solving those quality-of-life issues. Our mission statement is "policing with the citizens of Burlington to achieve a safe, healthy and self-reliant community," with big emphasis on the last word. We work together to do that. We work through neighborhood associations. They meet monthly. Our officers are fixtures there. We have developed projects depending on what the issue is.

SD: What do you think will be the toughest problems for your successor to overcome?

AE: Perceptions. There are people in the community who have been very vocal -- and I think we have a responsibility to listen to them. But we also need to discern what's real and what's noise. Perception is reality and my question to them is, "What are you willing to do to get involved?" It's really easy to point fingers and say, "You're not doing a really good job." But what's your part, meaning the community?

SD: What about Burlington's heroin problem?

AE: That's pretty much leveled off. It certainly exists out there and continues to be a problem. But it's not quite the problem it has been in the past.

SD: What do you attribute that to?

AE: Well, I think it's been difficult for dealers to come in here and get a foothold. People come in from out of town and local people give them up to us. We are very attuned to that. Our drug unit works really hard.

SD: What will you remember as your biggest accomplishment?

AE: I think we've become more responsive. Because of severe lack of staffing, [my predecessors] had done away with sergeants and, when I came in, we re-instituted them. We felt that [officers] needed more supervision in the field -- there were so many young officers -- so there was a complaint of lack of responsiveness. The way we reorganized, I think we've resolved a lot of that. People in the community know who their lieutenant is -- if they care -- and who their team members are in their community. That's published, it's on our Web site, and they can reach out and make a call.

There's always room for improvement. Always. We had some excellent people here, and we've hired some great people, so I think the future looks really bright. …That's probably what I leave the city.

SD: You won't miss the winters, will you?

AE: I like to ski. And because General Dynamics is growing their innovation center here, I'll always have a reason to come back.