WESTFIELD — Policing is much different that when retiring Westfield Police Chief Lawrence Valliere first walked the city’s streets to serve and protect.

“It’s a whole different kind of training that our officers get today,” Valliere said Jan. 18 when asked how much the training standards and new officers have changed since he joined the force in 1983.

On his second-to-last day before retirement, he also offered his view of how the community’s perspective of police officers has changed over the years. While hesitant to paint all the residents of the city as critical of law enforcement, he said there is a portion that “don’t like you.”

“They just don’t show any respect, and that makes it difficult for us,” he said.

When he first started walking the streets in the early 1980s, Valliere said people generally had more respect for police officers, even if they got in trouble.

“Cooperation seemed to come a little easier,” he said.

Society’s changing view of police makes the job a lot more challenging for the men and women who choose a career in law enforcement. And with cell phone cameras everywhere, it only takes one officer using questionable judgement in a tense situation to tar all those who honorably, and professionally, serve, he said.

“That’s all it takes,” said Valliere, holding up his own cell phone to demonstrate how easy it is to record.

To avoid police-public interactions from going sideways, Valliere said state and departmental policies have been established to help keep potentially bad officers from wearing a badge.

Applicants undergo a thorough background check before a departmental leadership team conducts five separate interviews with them, he said.

Each applicant must also pass a pre-employment psychological screening, he said, and applicants must also pass a Civil Service exam designed for new police officers.

Once those items are checked off, applicants then attend the state’s Police Academy for six months, and once they graduate, they spend 14 weeks patrolling with a full-time officer to learn the ropes of the job, he said.

That’s much different than the process when Valliere started nearly four decades ago.

“It was more like paramilitary training then,” he said of his eight weeks of part-time training. Most of his skills, he said, “I learned by going out” on the street.

Valliere said being a police officer is not that difficult of a job.

“It just takes common sense and discretion. And you have to care,” he said.

When he was on the streets and encountered a difficult situation, he said before deciding about any consequences someone in trouble might face, he would want to “hear their story.”

“I looked at the totality of the situation and then decide, ‘what’s the reasonable thing to do?’ That should come into play,” he said.

Since being named chief in 2019, Valliere said managing the department during the coronavirus pandemic was challenging, but also rewarding.

“We worked hard to keep as many officers working as we could,” he said.

The fallout from the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, was another moment that stands out for him.

With police stations around the nation being vandalized or, in a few cases, burned down, Valliere said the entire Westfield department was on high alert and maintained that vigilance for months.

In the aftermath of the Floyd murder, the state established Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to improve policing and enhance public confidence in law enforcement. The POST Commission established a process for police officer certification.

While Valliere said he wasn’t entirely convinced the state’s police officers needed POST, he said its oversight has been good.

“It’s done a lot for transparency,” he said.

Instead of POST, he said outfitting every officer in the state with body cameras might have accomplished the same thing.

Valliere has been replaced by Chief Jerome Pitoniak, who was sworn in Jan. 19.

“The department is in good hands with Chief Pitoniak,” Valliere said.

He pointed to one issue within the department that the new chief will have to deal with: recruiting new officers.

Right now, the department has 66 officers, and 30 of them have been on the force for less than three years.

“We have a very young department,” he said.

And even when the department chooses a recruit, it might be well over a year before that officer is available, given the training requirements.

As Valliere looks back over his years on the city’s police force, he knows the city’s residents can count of their men and women in blue because of a one thing: caring for the city.

“We’ve got a great department because this place is built on a trademark of giving a damn,” he said.

cclark@thereminder.com | + posts