Protecting and Serving Wilton

Protecting and Serving Wilton

Eric OlesenA few days ago I came across a photo that got me thinking about my next column. It was of a group of Chadian men on horseback, with small knives attached to their left arm and a few with old rifles slung over their shoulders. These men were the police force for the Canton (the equivalent of a county in the US) in which they resided. They were called Goumiers, referencing the indigenous soldiers from Morocco who served fearlessly with the French Army in Africa during the Second World War.  These Goumiers, from Bougoumene in Chad, were heading out to handle a situation in another part of the canton. Elephants had gotten drunk on eating fermented palm fruit and destroyed part of a village.   The men responding needed to be animal control officers and emergency relief workers as well as protectors. I found myself wondering how much the work of these men differed from that of our Wilton police force.

I contacted Wilton’s Police Chief, Eric Olesen, to chat about the life of a Wilton police officer.  We met in the library, informally seated in two comfortable chairs with children and library patrons merging in and out of our conversation. This perfectly suited the topic of our discussion – the role of policing in a small town and the importance of knowing and being part of your community.

One of the first things Eric mentioned was that policing a small town was quite different from policing in a larger city, or even a town the size of Amherst. He emphasized that one of the essential things to know about serving a small community like Wilton is that you become a stake-holder and not just an employee, particularly when you live there. 

This means he and his officers make it a part of their routines to participate in town activities, not just as officers of the law. Eric is always on hand during town elections and he and his officers are also familiar figures at town meetings and other special events.

One other place people can count on seeing his team is at Florence Rideout Elementary School. There they regularly participate in the “Read Across America” program.  They even serve lunches on Green Eggs and Ham Day.  Eric takes pride in “hi-fiving” every child during lunch. His and his officers’ duties are made much easier when they are able to build rapport with young and old alike.

One other activity he was able to reestablish post-Covid was the “Pack a Police Car” program.  During the holiday season they collect toys and cash for those in need with, as he explained,  “The Legion makes certain toys and gift and gas cards make it to those who could benefit from a little extra help.”

When we began discussing everyday policing routines vs. the unusual, I was brought back to the events that began this article.  As Eric said his job entails “a little bit of everything” from traffic control and safety and property protection to humanitarian relief and support, animal control and health crisis.  This is where the differences stood out, while the similarities were striking.

The differences were easy. Traffic control for one. There are no highways or even roads in Bougoumene.  There are paths where you either walk or travel by horse, Zebu cow or donkey and there is no way to speed when paddling a dugout down the Chari River.  But the similarities made me smile and put a humanitarian face on policing that is not often recognized.

Eric told a story about an oficer being called to Route 31 South. There he found a sheep that was wandering down the road and obviously needed rescue. This he did, and even learned the sheep’s name -  “Porkchop.”  Similarity #1 – Extra-ordinary animal control and rescue missions.

Eric’s next story detailed how police officers often go that extra step when finding individuals including motorists, and not just those from Wilton, in distress.  He recounted an event one rainy evening when he saw flashers blinking on a disabled car. Instead of making the driver wait for a tow truck in the cold and rain, Eric changed the flat tire and helped the motorist get safely underway. Similarity #2 – Emergency relief work.

As Eric commented, in a larger city he wouldn’t have such a variety of experiences while serving his community.

Eric points out that new methods of policing have come about in recent years. The emphasis now is on being more proactive than reactive.  Meaning, that understanding the community you are serving is an important component of effective policing.  You often can stop problems before they begin by building a trusting relationship with community members.  This is a far cry from only reacting to situations as they arise.  And this is all the more possible when you have a long tenure in small communities.  Your face is often a welcome presence instead of a perceived threat.

My very first question to Eric was “Why did you become a police officer?”

His reply was, “Ever since I was a small kid I wanted to become involved in emergency services and help people.” That obviously hasn’t changed. His favorite part of the job is community interaction;  being able to wave to people and knowing their names,  chatting briefly or having a cup of coffee together and knowing that you are making a difference to your community.

His least favorite part is having to break bad news to a family.

Eric’s last comment was, “What makes a community whole is the entire community working together with dignity and respect for everyone. This is how I like to see Wilton.”

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