Ron Hoague, a current captain with the Essex Police Department (EPD), is set to take over as chief on July 18 as announced by the town on Tuesday, June 16. According to the department’s website, he will be the 16th chief in Essex since 1913.
Hoague has worked in law enforcement for 29 years -- earning his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice leadership and management from Kaplan University in Chicago during his career. He has worked for EPD for 11 years across two stints as he returned to Essex two years ago following a 10-year tenure with the St. Albans Police Department. Hoague has worked side-by-side with current Essex chief Rick Garey -- who’s retiring in July -- since coming back.
On Thursday, Hoague took some time to sit down with the Reporter to talk about his vision for the department and discuss recent events regarding policing.
Essex Reporter: “You said in the quote that [Essex Unified Manager] Evan [Teich] gave us that you were ‘humbled’ to be offered the position; any other thoughts or feelings about being promoted to chief?”
Ron Hoague: “Well, I can give you an explanation of that. So, having started here in 1993 as a patrolman, and knowing the good reputation that Essex PD had back then, being able to come here [about a year and a half ago], I never thought that I would be given the opportunity to actually run the department someday. Certainly, I look back on the chief back then, and the captain, and I remember thinking that they were far ahead of anything that I would ever be able to accomplish. And being able to be chosen to run this department -- where I started long ago -- and being in charge of some of the best, most professional people that I've ever seen… it's unreal. I don't think it's really sunk into me yet; I suspect it probably will on July 19 -- the day after I get sworn in.”
ER: “Was this a goal, or a dream, of yours 29 years ago when you started, maybe more recently, or even as a kid?”
RH: “I always had an interest in leadership, even when I was a kid. My grandfather was in the military; my father was in the military. I chose to go into the police profession instead of the military, and having an interest in leading people was something that I've had ever since I started. Probably about 10 years into my career, I finally started deciding that I needed to do something if I was going to make that happen. Up until then, I had a high school diploma. So I decided to go back to college, get my college degree, and then finished my bachelor's when I was 40 years old. I knew that I needed that in order to be promotable and started working towards it.
“One of the reasons I was working in St. Albans under [Chief] Gary Taylor was because I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could. I was in a command position there, did a lot of great things while I was at St. Albans, and learned a lot about command. And then when I came here, it was under the premise that I knew that someday Essex was going to be looking for another chief, and I was really hopeful that that was going to be me.”
ER: “What do you think will be the biggest obstacles or challenges for you as you start your stint as chief here?
RH: “Personnel. No question. Not only the hiring of new people, but supervisory personnel. We have had six officers who have left here, or are going to retire including the chief, in the two years that I've been here, and five of those have been due to retirements. So it seems like we hire people, but on the other side of it we keep bleeding people out as well. So that's the toughest thing: getting people in here to fill the open positions that we have so that we can accomplish the missions that we’re tasked with.
“And then on top of that is getting people in supervisory positions, because with the chief leaving, that leaves myself, a lieutenant, and two sergeants. For a department this size, that is way, way undersized. We certainly need more supervisors, and we have some good people here who are in position to do that. And that's going to be one of my first tasks: to promote some more into sergeants’ positions and supervisory personnel.”
ER: “Do you know if [recruitment and retention is] a problem across the state, or in the area, with other departments?”
RH: “Everybody is facing the same issues as far as recruitment, and certainly with recent events, I'm not sure how that's going to affect that. I think that's yet to be seen: how recruitment in law enforcement is going to be affected. I certainly hope that there's many, many people out there that are seeing what's going on and saying to themselves, ‘I want to be part of this to make things better and help with positive change.’ So I'm hoping it goes that way, but I'm not sure at this point; I guess we'll see down the road. But other other departments are having the same issues that we are with trying to find qualified individuals who can pass all of the testing -- it's very stringent, and we need to be that way.”
ER: “Is that the biggest problem: passing the tests? It's not a lack of interest or low pay?"
RH: “No, I think it's all of those. The job market had been really good up until the COVID crisis; the job market had been fantastic. So we're competing against private companies who are hiring folks for much more than we can pay in public service, as well as getting the numbers of applicants; those have dropped off in the 29 years I've been around. I can remember when I got hired here at Essex, I was one of two people who applied for the position that I was applying for -- the police officer position -- and both of us were certified. It's hard to do that now, where you get certified folks that are wanting to move or getting qualified folks to come in. Once you do get those applications, they quickly get whittled down because people don't meet the standards that have been set forth. We want people with the most integrity. We want people who are physically fit. We want people who are dedicated to the community and willing to stay with us and do the right things that we expect them to do. We expect a lot of the people that work for us.”
ER: “Have you given any thought to pushing for an increase in salaries to make [working here] more appealing for people?”
RH: “Well, up until March, we had known that we were behind in salaries for Chittenden County. In March, the town signed a new contract with the union here, and the town did a great job in bumping up those salaries. So now, we are very competitive to other agencies in Chittenden County, and I think we're right there with everybody else. I can't give enough credit to the town and the union for getting where we did.”
ER: “What do you think the biggest obstacles or challenges for the department are, overall and outside of personnel, that you'll be dealing with over the next two or three years?”
RH: “I think the greatest challenge for us is trying to increase our legitimacy in the community and reaching out to all the citizens of Essex. We've had so many folks who have come in, called, emailed us within the last couple of weeks telling us how much they love the police department, and that's fantastic; we enjoy excellent support from our community. I've been in some communities before -- not here in Vermont, thankfully -- that did not support their police department. So luckily, we've got a great community here that does. But I know we can do better than that. I know there are people out there that we don't connect with. And that's certainly something that I want to work on -- to try to connect with everyone in the community.”
ER: “People have said that they would like to see the police more. Is that something that is a matter of the town being so large, area wise, and only having so many cruisers?”
RH: “Well, yeah -- that's part of it is. We have a limited amount of people even authorized; we're authorized 32 people. And then if you look at other agencies, they have more personnel than we do per capita. So, we do a lot, and we expect our people to do a lot. But we also want to remain fiscally responsible, as well. We understand that there are budgets. I believe people not only want to see the police patrolling the streets, but they also want to see the police officers in the community, talking to them, and just interacting. I think that's what folks are looking for really.
“I will say our number one complaint is traffic. This is a busy town when the traffic is going. With the COVID crisis, a lot of the streets were very empty. And now that people are back to work, people are still driving like the streets are empty. So, we get traffic complaints daily from folks that are complaining about speed on the road. And I only have so many personnel right now to be able to get out there to actually enforce the laws. We don't currently have a traffic officer assigned because of personnel that we've lost. Once we get better and get more staff, then we'll be able to do that.”
ER: “We mentioned years… Do you have any plans about how long you think you’ll serve as chief?”
RH: “My plans right now are -- I'm 50 years old -- I plan on sticking around until I'm 60. So I have a good 10 years left here.”
ER: “Do you think you might have less of a learning curve than other new chiefs -- where it seems that you've worked pretty closely with Rick [Garey] and kind of right under him?
RH: “Yeah, certainly. I think the learning curve for me is going to be much less than someone who was coming in from the outside, because I've been here for two years in the command-level position. But I have also lived and worked here for a lot longer than that, and I'm familiar with the community -- familiar with the people that work here now -- and I understand the issues that need to be addressed. And I understand the things that we need to do moving forward.”
ER: “You mentioned to Evan [Teich] that you want Essex Police to be the best department in the state. What does that mean to you, to be the ‘best?’”
RH: “To be the best to me means that: I want our agency to be the one that everyone wants to come to work for. I want our agency to have the best technology, the best leadership, the best policies, constantly be looking forward to new and better ideas and not become stagnant. And also, being able to accomplish the missions that we’re given, which is solving crimes or preventing crime and taking care of traffic enforcement -- that type of thing. So I think that's what, in my mind, the ‘best’ means. It's just that: accomplishing the missions that we’re given in the best ways.”
ER: “Outside of dollars, which are surely a big factor with purchasing technology or staffing, what do you think you'll have to do to get EPD to that level of being the ‘best?’”
RH: “Right now, we're facing some equipment replacement issues that we've had come up. Radio systems are getting to where they need to be replaced, computer systems -- as we all know -- are constantly in flux. So those are some things that we need to look at, moving within the next couple of years, in how we're going to do that. And then, of course, there’s the obvious upkeep of this great building that we have.”
ER: “Looking at the recent events around the world: how much emphasis or training do you plan on implementing, or continuing, to ensure that your officers aren't discriminating or using excessive force?”
RH: “Our officers have been getting training for the last 10 years in fair and impartial policing. They've consistently been doing training in use of force. My plan going forward would be to increase that. Right now, our officers are getting 4-8 hours of use of force training every year in just hands-on techniques, and then they have firearms and all that stuff on top of it. I plan to double that right off by giving our officers at least eight hours of use of force training on top of firearms training. Within the last year and a half, we sent one of our officers to a class to become a trainer in de-escalation, and we did give that training to our officers last year. This year, we're going to expand that and give them even more training in that program. That's been really beneficial, I think, for a lot of folks here -- to think about things a little differently than what we have traditionally. And I've seen a lot of the folks actually using the techniques that we give them, which is rewarding to actually know.”
ER: “How often are there conversations about different instances around the country [among the officers]?”
RH: “There are a lot of conversations that go on the side and between the officers and the management. Everybody's talking about these issues that we have these days, and everybody here agrees that we welcome more training; we welcome more interaction with the public and that kind of thing. Those are some of the conversations that we've been having in the department.”
ER: “To your knowledge, has there been any sort of track record of complaints against the department in regards to profiling or discrimination?”
RH: “No, we haven't. We have not had any complaints of profiling, discrimination, or anything like that. We keep track of records of traffic stops, just as the state statute mandates. We keep track of those, and we regularly look at those stats to make sure that we're not having an officer out there who's only stopping people of color. We post those on our website to make them public so that others can see what we're doing. We don't have a history of that. I certainly am not going to tolerate a history of that -- or any types of complaints of that. The department has been doing good in that respect.”
ER: “Any other thoughts or comments about taking over and what you’re going to face as chief?”
RH: “The biggest thing right now is getting people in the positions I need them in and then working on our technology, getting those things done and trying to get us out there more in the community by interacting with other groups; not just law enforcement, not just first responder groups… getting our image out there to people so that they can meet us and interact with us, I think, is one of the biggest things that we need to do.”