Thomas Battista has served as a deputy with the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department for the past 20 years.
Community service, it turns out, is a hallmark of the law enforcement officer’s family: wife Jennifer is a paraeducator in the Springfield school district, and the deputy’s two adult children have chosen careers similar to their father’s — daughter Emilia works for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections and son Antonio is serving in the US Air Force and recently returned from overseas deployment. For his part, longtime Springfield resident and veteran Sheriff’s Deputy Battista is now seeking to lead the department where he has worked for two decades.
Battista is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Windsor County Sheriff in the upcoming primary election on Aug. 9. He hopes to parlay his extensive experience with the department’s patrol division and administrative team, as well as his skills as a self-described “people person,” business and sales manager, grant writer, and community servant, into becoming the next Windsor County Sheriff, replacing incumbent Michael Chamberlain, his boss for the last two decades. At the end of a long day on the campaign hustings Sunday evening, Battista spoke at length about his experience as a sheriff’s deputy and his vision for the future of the agency where he has served dutifully since 2002.
Battista was 36 when he shifted to a career in law enforcement after successfully working as a vice president for sales and marketing in various settings since earning a degree in business management from Nasson College in Maine in his twenties. “Ever since I was younger, I had always wanted to be a police officer. Going back 20 years now, when I got down to it, I just discovered it was me. It was something I really wanted to do,” Battista said. In Vermont, the responsibilities of sheriff’s departments, which are funded from both state and county coffers, as well as from contracts that departments take on, include providing suspect transportation between jails and court appearances, security details, traffic control, and serving civil court paperwork , such as divorce filings and eviction notices. In Windsor County, the sheriff currently oversees a department of 18 full-time and part-time law officers and civilian administrative staff.
“When I first started, I was a patrol deputy, patrolling towns, providing court security, doing traffic details, all the basic duties of a patrol officer. I did that roughly until 2011, when I came into the office as an admin person because my background was in business and financial management,” the deputy noted last weekend. “I started learning the inside of the business from the sheriff, the contracts, how we operated, how we were funded. My niche has always been grants — I’m the grant writer: highway safety grants, DUI and distracted driving grants, I get all of the equipment grants. I’ve done foreclosure sales. I know the operation inside out, upside down, and sideways.”
While touting his business and management acumen as a core requirement for heading the Sheriff’s Department, Battista places equal if not greater weight on deputies’ roles as community servants and keepers of the peace. The longtime deputy views the dearth of human resources and the resultant shortage of in-depth community engagement as one of the biggest challenges facing the Sheriff’s Department today. If he the Democratic nod next month and succeeds in a head-to-head race against the anticipated Republican nominee, incumbent Sheriff Chamberlain, in November, Battista hopes to kick his financial acumen, grant writing, and management skills into overdrive to expand the department and its services, with a particular focus on community-based policing and greater transparency for the communities it serves.
“My vision is that we need transparency to get back the trust of the public. It’s a nationwide thing, that problem of a lack of trust,” Battista commented. “I want to start with a civilian review board. Once you have that, the people are going to be the ones overseeing the police. You assign an internal investigator to work with it, you have the policy manuals, a complaint comes in, he or she investigates it, and the only times the sheriff gets involved is if there is a termination or if the allegation is so serious that it needs to go to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council for higher-level review. But even then, if you have already had an independent review board review it, make a recommendation, and decide if there are going to be any sanctions, the council is probably going to sign off on it because you’ve already had an independent party examine it.”
Expanded community connections are central to Battista’s ethos as a candidate for sheriff, he reiterated several times on Sunday. “We need to get much more involved with the community,” he offered. “I want to get a proactive mental health team started. The overall goal would be to get all officers crisis-certified, so that whenever we have an incident, I can put a response team together in a short period of time. It’s about building a relationship with people so they begin to see us in a more positive light, because I know a lot of homeless people, for example, people who are experiencing mental health issues, they’re afraid of the police – they think we are always going to lock them up. And that’s not what we want. You never know what’s going to send somebody off, but when you build relationships you can prevent that.”
Manpower shortages in policing in Vermont — both as the result of a lack of financial resources and of the nationwide calls for downsizing or defunding law enforcement agencies with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and highly publicized slayings of unarmed people of color — have affected the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department as well. Battista insists that a change of course is in order — and he believes he has the tools, expertise, and sensitivity to human needs to make it happen.
“We’re always behind the eight ball when trying to respond to complaints whenever manpower is down, so we’re never going to get ahead of the ball,” the deputy commented. “One of my big plans, of course, is diversity in hiring, but also to go to colleges that have a law enforcement program, criminal justice programs, get the department to be a part of the curriculum so that people can get internships and get credit for what they are doing with us. In the summertime, when they are off school, we want them to work for us, getting real-life experience in the work that they want to do.”
Battista also advocates for a restructuring of the way law enforcement happens in Windsor County, where only a third of the 24 municipalities in the county have their own police forces, while the remaining towns rely on a combination of contracted services from the Sheriff’s Department and the Vermont State Police to meet their policing needs. “My ultimate vision is to have a Windsor County public safety bureau,” he stated, “Let’s take our volunteer fire departments, our public works departments — we can combine our resources, get one command or communications center, where we all have equal say . We can get our own repeaters, our own frequencies, put them on all our radios, which obviously would increase our ability to communicate effectively. We could look at common body and cruiser cameras tied to GPS and computers and bring them all together,” Battista continued. “I know it’s something that hasn’t been done up until now because of the cost, but if we start pooling our money, taking a creative approach, bringing a fundraising and grant professional on staff, you can get it done.”
Battista, like his opponent Palmer, is loath to see the sheriff’s department overtly politicized and he takes pains to avoid discussion of endorsements from Democratic Party leaders in the region for his primary campaign effort. But near the conclusion of last weekend’s discussion, he was clear about why he is running for sheriff as a Democrat.
“The biggest thing that enthuses me about the Democrats is that they are always for the people,” Battista commented. “That’s always been my vision of what Democrats are about. My opponent says that we are unprofessional, he talks about policing for profit. I just balk at that kind of stuff. He’s never worked for a sheriff’s department for one day. We deal with traffic every day, we are in the courts every day, our people transport prisoners, and we are very good at deescalating. We don’t try to tune people up; we try to talk to them. We have a job to do. It’s never personal.”