PORTSMOUTH — He’s been chief of police for six years, on the force for 25, and at year’s end Lance Hebert will trade in his police uniform for clothes more suitable to the outdoors.
Chief Hebert, who announced last week that he is retiring as chief at age 50, said his immediate plan is to go to work at a friend’s landscaping business — TE Little Co, owned by Todd Little.
“It’s what I want to do right now, really what I need to do.” He said he thinks working outdoors will be a good antidote for the stresses that come with police work.
“I’ve really liked my time with the Portsmouth Police Department. I feel blessed to have been my town’s police chief — it is rewarding work and leaving wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “But it can be stressful — you take it home with you every night.”
Chief Hebert said he’s looking forward to the chance to devote more time to things he enjoys including work with young hockey players. A former hockey goalie, he and others have led skills clinics for 7th and 8th graders looking forward to playing at Portsmouth High School. He has also helped organize an event at which hockey players and other high school skaters take youngsters, including some with disabilities, skating at Portsmouth Abbey.
A Portsmouth native and graduate of Portsmouth High School,, Chief Hebert spent four years in the Air Force before joining the Portsmouth Police Department back when Madison Bailey was chief. He moved up through the ranks under chiefs Paul Rogers and Dennis Seale and became chief when Chief Seale retired.
He took the post at a time of tight budgets and quickly had to deal with the loss of the department’s DARE program, its SWAT team and school resource officer position.
“We reorganized and officers stepped up to the plate and took on new responsibilities to get us through,” he said. It has to be like that on a small force, he believes — “and we are fortunate to have a good group here that is ready to step up.”
In a town with two very busy main roads leading to an internationally known tourist attraction, traffic safety is a critical part of the job, the chief said, and one where strides have been made in recent years.
He points to the change of the northern stretch of East Main Road and Turnpike Avenue from four lanes to two, a move he says has made these much safer places.
“Now someone living there can get out of the driveway without worrying so much about getting hit by someone speeding past at 50.”
A similar lane reduction is coming soon to West Main Road from the junction of Bristol Ferry Road south to the Route 24 ramp.
Progress has also been made on the training front, thanks in part to help from the RI Police Chiefs Association, he said. Not only have training resources been increased but it is also being coordinated “so that all departments have the same procedures” for dealing with such issues as use of force, pursuits, mental health issues, drunk driving and more.
For chiefs, for any officer, satisfaction comes from solving crimes. “When you are able to put a stop to something like that, it’s a great feeling. Police officers take these things personally and solving them is what any officer wishes for.” And he said the Portsmouth department has done a good job of cracking such cases.
But there are other parts of the job that no officer ever gets used to.
“There are a lot of sad cases. You are there at moments of family devastation, a family’s worst moments … Bad accidents, people who have taken their own lives — those things always stay in your mind.”
He had hopes to address other issues but something (usually budgets) always got in the way.
There needs to be a study done of the police station, he said. “It is quite cramped,” he said, and lacks the flexibility to meet the needs of today’s police work, he said.
And there also needs to be study of manpower levels and structural issues, he believes. A rule of thumb is that a town needs two police officers for every thousand citizens. If Portsmouth has 18,000 people, that means there should be around 36 officers yet staffing is now 32 — “At best, but almost always someone is off on military duty or injured.”
The task of picking his replacement as chief goes to Town Administrator John Klimm, with approval by the town council.
“It’s their decision of course,” Chief Hebert said, “but I have complete faith” that our deputy chief (Jeffrey Furtado) would make a strong police chief. He is just as confident in the abilities of the force’s lieutenants to step up to the deputy chief role. “The department is in a strong position and fortunate to have some very good people.”