Chief to retire after 'rewarding' career

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WILMINGTON — As he heads into retirement, Police Chief Joe Szarejko would be sure to warn anyone interested in pursuing a law enforcement career that the job will be demanding. Sometimes, it calls for more than laying down the law.

"But it's very rewarding when you get to help people," he said in his office Monday. "It's not just all about arresting people and giving tickets out. We help a lot of people here with different things. Whether their motor vehicle broke down on the side of the highway or something as simple as returning a dog to its owner, it's very rewarding when you get to do something like that."

His last day with the department is scheduled for Oct. 31. He is retiring after working for the town of Wilmington for 36 years, more than 20 of which he served as chief.

"I'm at a point in my life where I want to spend more time with my family, doing the things I like to do," he said. "It was kind of a hard decision for me."

Szarejko said retired police officers have told him he will know when it's time to retire "and it is for me."

Hanging out with his wife and young grandson, hunting and fishing are some of what he looks forward to in retirement. He also plans to continue his side business of plowing driveways and mowing lawns, possibly taking on a few more accounts.

While growing up in upstate New York, Szarejko chose his career path after hearing stories from friends' fathers who worked in law enforcement. He got his start at the sheriff's office in Herkimer County, N.Y., in 1979. A year and a half later, he began working with the Windham County Sheriff's Office. He had a six-month stint a year later at the Dover Police Department before Augie Fernandes, former Wilmington police chief, tapped him for a job.

"I really enjoyed it," Szarejko said.

Fernandes recently wrote on a Facebook post advertising openings with the Wilmington department, "Chief, am I too old for the position?" followed by a smiley face emoji. "Great department to be part of!"

Szarejko got married and bought a house in Wilmington. He said he did not intend to stay as long as he did, but he liked the job and the people in the Deerfield Valley. He became lifelong friends with parents of his children's friends and other law enforcement officers. Two of his children went on to have law enforcement careers in Vermont. And Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed him to the Governor's Emergency Preparedness Advisory Council for two years, starting in 2014.

The biggest challenge over the years, Szarejko said, has been filling shifts.

"It's very difficult and it's not just here," he said. "It's across the state."

Szarejko said there is a shortage of police officers, and officers tend to jump around, working at different police departments when opportunities pop up. He said small departments are limited in what they can offer.

Safety has been his biggest concern. And he was happy to report a decrease in burglaries, fatal motor vehicle crashes and impaired driving incidents over the years.

Szarejko credited the diligence of officers in the field along with the cooperation with business owners in addressing the burglaries. Fatal crashes went from happening twice a year to rarely ever, with credit going to speed limit enforcement and improved vehicles. And a change in public attitude was said to contribute largely to cutting down on drunken and drugged driving.

Szarejko said there were some heartaches over the years. Officers would leave for other departments. And former Wilmington officer Lt. Mark Dooley was killed in the Iraq War in 2005.

Szarejko said he enjoyed working with different law enforcement officers and department heads over the years.

"We've had police officers from here go on to have amazing careers elsewhere," Szarejko said, while noting a decline in job applications for police work in Vermont and around the United States. "It's harder and harder to find qualified people to do this job."

Town Manager Scott Tucker said Szarejko has seen officers start in Wilmington, then end up with the State Police or in federal jobs. One former officer is now a major in the Vermont State Police.

Police chiefs in small towns face pressures those in bigger areas may not, said Tucker, who previously worked for the Rutland Police Department.

"When no one else shows up," he said, "you have to show up."

Tucker said the Wilmington department is going to be short three positions — half the department — and the town is in the process of hiring. He noted this includes training and background checks, which can be demanding. He has posted the chief position opening internally for now. He said the department's two sergeants would qualify.

After an interview panel meets with candidates, Tucker said he will decide how to proceed and whether to seek applications from outside. The same method was used for hiring Scott Moore, the town's fire chief who had a long history with the fire department.

Tucker said there are a lot of openings for police jobs in Vermont. He is trying to appeal to applicants who enjoy the outdoors.

Last time Tucker checked the national average, police chiefs usually last two to three years in the position.

"That is extraordinary when your career as a chief is 20 years," he said, adding that Szarejko has "certainly served his community well, with distinction."

Tucker said the chief has probably done a lot of work behind the scenes that no one will know about.

"Law enforcement gets in your blood," Tucker said, using a phrase familiar to those in the field. "And it's really true. Once you get involved with all the different kinds of things, law enforcement allows you to touch people's lives in different ways. That way of helping and doing well for the community just gets in your blood."

He said he would not be surprised if Szarejko comes back to help the town in some way in the future.

Szarejko said police work often involves putting time in on nights, weekends and holidays, and not all wives are as understanding about it as his has been. He wondered aloud what it will be like when the phone rings, to not automatically think something bad has happened.

"It's going to be tough," he said.

Szarejko said his career has been rewarding and he has no regrets.

"But like I said, it's time," he said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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