VERNON -- With nearly two decades of law-enforcement experience, Vernon Police Chief Mary Beth Hebert is accustomed to dealing with the unexpected.
But she acknowledges that 2012 has been a challenge, as Hebert was forced to take several months of leave to battle a severe case of meningitis.
On Monday, though, she returned to her office off Governor Hunt Road. And Hebert says she has a list of priorities and improvements to tackle in the coming months.
"I'm excited to be back, and I'm excited about the direction of this department," she said.
Hebert, who has been the department's chief for about three years, became seriously ill in late July and was forced to temporarily leave her job.
"I tried to come back for a couple weeks in September, but I wasn't ready," she said.
Eventually, Vernon Selectboard hired Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark to fill in as interim chief. It was a controversial move: Hebert argued that the hiring was unnecessary while Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell contended that the department needed leadership in Hebert's absence.
Clark acknowledged in an October report to the Selectboard that the town's officers were not happy. But he also said he had found no "major issues" that needed to be addressed in the department's operations.
Clark's short tenure as chief included a daylong standoff that ended without injury when police fired tear gas into the suspect's apartment off Route 142 near the Massachusetts line.
"He did a great job for the Town of Vernon," O'Donnell said of Clark. "The town really appreciates the time and energy that he put in."
O'Donnell added that "it's wonderful to have (Hebert) back. Everybody in town is happy to see that she's feeling better."
Hebert said she is feeling much better, and she expects to hit the ground running. One of her first priorities is to schedule an open house that she hopes will attract a much bigger crowd than such events have in the past.
"My purpose is for them to meet and greet with my staff and for the townspeople to come in and see what their tax dollars have paid for," Hebert said.
Discussion at the open house will include formation of a neighborhood-watch group and promotion of a program that teaches young people about police work.
"The officers are going to talk about the Explorer program, which we have here, and we hope to have some youth in Vernon participate in that," Hebert said.
In addition to the open house, Hebert said she wants to find ways to enhance the department. For instance, she would like to pursue grant funding that could pay for computers in cruisers.
"It actually keeps the officer out on the road more," she said.
Also, Hebert wants to add police coverage. That could mean having an officer in the station 24 hours a day; Vernon police currently are on call in the early-morning hours.
Hebert added that "having two officers on every shift would be great," though she acknowledged that such coverage would require funding that is not currently available.
In the coming weeks, the department will be assigning two officers to the busy Friday- and Saturday-night shifts, Hebert said.
She believes such moves are necessary due to the department's increasing call volume. After logging more than 900 incidents in 2011, Vernon officers have reported more than 1,000 incidents this year with one month still to go.
"Since I've been here, it's fair to say it's been our busiest year," Hebert said.
She could not attribute that increase to any single factor, noting that burglaries are down while domestic-violence calls are on the rise.
"You just can't predict what's going to happen," Hebert said.
She also points out, though, that it's not all about responding to emergencies. Hebert sees her department as "service-oriented," which she defines as a "focus more on helping the community rather than (only) strict enforcement."
An example might be assisting a resident who has a question about a phone call or a piece of mail he or she received.
"People are calling us and stopping by," Hebert said. "And our numbers reflect that."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.