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Changing of the guard

Police chief retires; Heath appointed as replacement

September 15, 2009
ALTON — As the atmosphere within Alton's Police Department begins to settle down after a three-year period of internal turmoil and personnel changes at all levels, one more changing of the guard will take place early next month, when current chief Phil Smith hands the reins over to his newly-promoted second in command, Ryan Heath.

The board of selectmen received official notice of Smith's retirement from police work, effective Oct. 1, during its Sept. 8 meeting, and decided in a 4-1 vote (with Selectman Pat Fuller dissenting) that it would be in the town's best interest to promote from within, rather than commence a full-scale search for a replacement.

Smith, who assumed command of the department in the fall of 2007, is stepping down after a 25-year career in law enforcement to accept a position closer to his home in Salem, as Atkinson's new town administrator.

"It's a bittersweet move," he said during a telephone interview on Sept. 10, explaining that although he enjoyed serving in Alton, he felt that he had arrived at "the right time and the right place" for a new opportunity.

Despite his mixed emotions at the prospect of stepping down, Smith said he felt confident that he was leaving his staff of 11 full-time and five part-time officers in "a position of strength," capable of carrying on at the level of service he would expect from them.

"That's a comfortable feeling," he said, adding that he would not hesitate to take the team of officers he assembled during his time in Alton "anywhere," and takes great pride in their competency and dedication to duty.

Smith also thanked the selectmen for their cooperation and efforts to provide a "helpful environment" over the past two years.

Their decision to appoint Heath as his replacement, he said, is a reflection of how confident they are with the way things have developed within the department.

Smith said he will also miss the stability provided by Town Administrator Russell Bailey, who he described as a consummate professional.

Bailey, he said, was one of the reasons he chose to apply for a position as Alton's chief of police.

"I hope I've done what I promised to do, which is leave without causing a ripple in the water," Smith said, adding that he was confident his efforts had helped to make Alton "a better place."

"I am absolutely proud [of the department]," he said. "I couldn't leave at a higher point."

Thanking the community for its support during his tenure, Smith said he viewed the chance to work in Alton as "a career fulfillment."

Voicing his support for Heath's promotion, Smith said Heath would have been his personal choice for a second-in-command had he not already been acting as the department's interim chief when Smith arrived in Alton.

"We haven't even seen his full potential," Smith said, describing Heath as "a constant learner" and "a very good leader."

"I've brought it to the 10-yard line, but [Heath's] going to punch it in," he added.

Heath said during a telephone interview last week that his primary goal as chief will be to continue Smith's efforts to build a bridge between the department and the local community.

"Chief Smith and I worked well together … a lot of what we did was a collaborative effort," he said, explaining that as a long-time member of the department, he feels he has an understanding of what the community wants, and can balance that against the department's needs.

Seen by some as a polarizing figure due to his decision to come forward in the fall of 2006 with reports of alleged misconduct on the part of then-chief Kevin Iwans (who was later fired) and two other superior officers, Ed Correia (who was also fired as a result of the investigation) and Chuck Anderson (who resigned), Heath joined the Alton Police Department in October of 2000 after serving as a part-time officer in Pittsfield.

A native of Concord, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps in 1995 and served in both the Security Force Battalion and the Third Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, achieving the rank of sergeant before leaving the military in 1999 to accept a position as a Corrections Officer at the New Hampshire State Penitentiary.

Promoted to his present rank of captain in November 2006, Heath currently holds a total of 14 law enforcement instructor certifications, along with several investigative and tactical training certifications.

In an effort to continue Smith's philosophy of community-based policing, he said last week, the department is preparing to hire new officers through a recently-obtained COPS grant in order to increase coverage.

Alton, he said, also has a new school resource officer who is preparing to implement an array of new programs at the elementary and high schools.

Heath said he also plans to have officers spend more time connecting with community members at events like Old Home Day in order to promote a friendlier and more positive image of the department.

Bridging the gap between the department and the community, he said, will "help us get our job done."

"I'm very excited, and very happy to be given this opportunity," he said. "I intend on taking [what Smith started] as far as I can.

"I've been here for a while, and I plan on staying for a lot of years to come," he added.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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