Following the retirement announcement of former-Chief of Police John Lynch, the Wilton Police Commission named the department’s executive officer Capt. Thomas (Tom) Conlan as the next chief, effective today, Thursday, Feb. 2.
Now in his 23rd year of his career in Wilton, Conlan started as a patrol officer and worked up the ranks: sergeant in 2008, lieutenant in 2013, captain in 2015, and executive officer in 2016. He sat for an interview with GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve on the eve of being sworn in as chief.
GOOD Morning Wilton: It’s the first of the month but we have to wait until tomorrow, [Thursday] to officially call you ‘Chief.’
Incoming Chief Tom Conlan: [laughs] Yeah. Tomorrow we’re going to go over to the town clerk’s office to take our oath just so it’s official. But we’re definitely looking to do a ceremony at the library similar to what we’ve done in the past. I think at the moment me and [Capt.] Robert [Cipolla] are going to do ours the same night. So that should be fun. I think we’ve been promoted three or four times together. [Editor’s note: Cipolla was also promoted to Deputy Chief, effective Feb. 2.]
GMW: That’s great!
Conlan: When I made lieutenant, he made sergeant; and when I made captain, he made lieutenant; then this now, so three times.
GMW: It’s nice that you have the connections that you do here.
Conlan: Being a small department, it’s definitely nice because it’s a big family, you know? Unlike some bigger cities, that’d be tough, two- or 300 officers. It’s nice that the promotions do come from within, and you build people up from the bottom up and it gives people something to work towards.
Not only do we have promotions [from within], but we have a lot of other things that we do in-house, like the SRO positions — there’s two of those — or the records position, or the administrative officer or training divisions, or field training officers. There’s lots of different opportunities for people to find their own niche in the department. There’s always room for something, whether it be promotion or one of these other administrative positions, there’s always something to strive for.
GMW: I don’t know how it is in other towns, but it feels like something different in Wilton between residents and the department, the way John [Lynch] had a presence in town in living here, the longevity of the officers in Wilton, that it breeds familiarity and connection between the department and the residents. Do you agree?
Conlan: No doubt. Even if you don’t live here, I’ve spent, when I was younger officer, 16 hours a day here. Or eight-hour shifts every five, six, 10 days straight, usually working overtime and stuff. Sometimes you’re here in this town more than you are where you live. I know more about this town than I know mine.
You pay attention to the politics and what people want, you hear people’s comments or complaints on things. And you gain an interest or a stake in the community, just from working here. Even though a lot of them don’t live here, most of the police officers definitely feel a stake in the community and being part of it, day in, day out, dealing with the public. It’s such a great community to be a part of.
GMW: With policing so predominant in the news for both good and bad reasons, people know more about policing now. So to have those kind of connections, and as transparent as this department is, it’s even more important for the connections and the personal relationships that people have with Wilton’s police department.
Conlan: Definitely. I mean, you go home at night and watch the evening news, it’s always something about police or government or politics. Obviously, police are talked about quite frequently, unfortunately at the moment with what happened in Memphis. Another one of these instances and these knuckleheads did this. Obviously, we denounced that.
GMW: I want to remark on that, because right away the Department’s Facebook account posted that statement. It struck me as an evolution in this department too.
Conlan: We definitely want the Wilton community to know our feelings on certain things, and obviously with the George Floyd incident and what happened in Memphis, we realize you want to make sure the community knows our stance. You take it for granted they know already, but you have to put it out there: ‘Hey, this isn’t the way we do business. That isn’t the way things are done.’
It’s scary to me that it’s still happening. After George Floyd and going back to Rodney King, I can’t believe that there’s still departments out there doing this kind of stuff. Obviously I’d be shocked if anything like that ever happened with one of our officers.
Connecticut’s doing a great job, when they passed the Police Accountability Bill, they updated a lot on use of force, with choke holds and the way we go hands-on with people. They made a lot of changes with that. It bumped down from the Police Academy, and we retrained a lot of our officers on things they have to be mindful of.
We pride ourselves that we try and send all of our officers, when they get out of the academy, to a crisis intervention training, a five-day course where they learn not only to deal with people with mental health issues — which we see a lot of, unfortunately in our job today — but it also teaches them deescalation tactics.
You’ve got to go back to your core that we’re here to help people. We’re not here to be judge and juror. Maybe 30 years ago it was like that, but it’s not anymore. And it shouldn’t be like that. You should be here to help people and if someone gives you a hard time, you do your best to try, ‘We’re just trying to help you sir, or ma’am,’ and keep things deescalated, try not to increase the tension in the situation.
GMW: I imagine you’ve though about the next stage of your career and what you want to achieve. When you pictured yourself in the role of chief, what did you see? What tone do you want to set and what other things do you want to achieve with the department?
Conlan: Obviously, Chief Lynch did a great job here. He’s been very endearing to the town, and I want to continue that.
Coming out of Covid, it’s been difficult to get back to some of those community policing things that we’ve done — Coffee with a Cop or Stroll with Patrol, or Kindness Day and stuff like that. We just want to try and build off of that, as spring comes along, to have more of those type events. When we have our Police Awards ceremony, that’s a great night to get the public out and let them know what we’re trying to do. I just want to try and build off of those things.
Training — obviously we have to keep on top of that. Training is one of the things I’ve always been a proponent of, and the Police Commission is behind this. You can’t spend enough money or have enough hours of training for our officers. It’s a small department of only 45 officers, so it’s important that everybody gets the training they need, additional training above and beyond.
This Memphis incident was officers just punching people. Something we’re [implementing] is Brazilian jujitsu training. It’s a way to handle yourself in a situation where there’s use of force where you’re not punching somebody, you’re not hitting them with a baton. You’re able to control the person with your hands and try and deescalate the situation in that way, to avoid these types of incidents that are happening throughout the country.
You’ll see a lot of police departments in the state are going to this method. We’ve trained two of our officers to be trainers in it, and hopefully in March or April we’re going to put on a training for all our officers.
GMW: And of course you also have the the new police station construction project. You’ve got [the town’s former Director of Facilities and Public Works] Chris Burney, but it’s also now on your plate.
Conlan: It’s great to have Chris Burney, he’s got a lot of knowledge. He did a lot of work on the Miller-Driscoll School renovation project and Comstock [Community Center renovation], and he’s got a wealth of information. And we hired a great architect in Tecton, we’ve been very happy with them. It’s just a matter of keeping on top of things.
The hard part was convincing the community that we needed it. All those days where we did tours and events and we got it out to the public. It was great that the community supported us in this.
Now, you’d say the easy part, but I think it’s going to be even harder, of just building it and the logistics of building it on the same site right in front of the existing police department. We’ll rely heavily on Chris for that, where we’re going to have staging areas for the different construction equipment and materials, as well as trying not to interrupt Town Hall, the Fire Department, and the Town Hall Annex while we’re doing all this.
GMW: And your operations too. I mean, you’ve got police cars that need to get someplace pretty quickly.
Conlan: [laughs] Yeah. So there’s a lot to do there, and obviously I’ll rely on Rob Cipolla for that. And we have a great team of administrators in the Department — [Lieutenants] Dave Hartman and Greg Phillipson and Steve Rangle, as well as our sergeants. We’ll just have to work together on that and hopefully it’s a quick two years to get this building up.
It’ll be great when it’s done, and hopefully we’ll look back in two and a half years and be like, ‘You know, it was all worth it.’
GMW: Up until now, is there one incident or one story that stands out to you? Your most memorable time so far in the department?
Conlan: There was a lot of satisfying work as a patrolman and as a sergeant especially, too. Being able to be out there every day helping the public. Simple things, like investigating a burglary where somebody stole this 8-year-old kid’s baseball cards and being able to track that down and find the pawn shop where those were sold, and arresting the person and getting some of the cards back.
Those little stories are the things that most officers, I think, look back on fondly.
And then as a sergeant, being able to help the younger officers, making sure you’re out there and supervising and going to their calls and solving problems for the town. Whether it be some juvenile who’s maybe a little depressed and giving them some words of encouragement and getting them the help they need. Those are the real rewarding calls where the next day you get a call from their parent saying, ‘I don’t know what you said to my kid last night, but you know, it really made a difference.’
Those are the reasons people come here for this job.
As you become a lieutenant and a captain and a chief, you get a little removed, unfortunately. You still have an impact, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the day in and day out, every day with the public.
I’m sure now as the chief I’ll get more of a chance to get out there. I’m definitely looking forward to getting out there and meeting people more.
My vision for the department is just keep doing. We’re doing a great job here and just keep that going, try and stay ahead of the curve.
GMW: Are you at the full staff of 45 officers?
Conlan: Well, we had 45, but now with Chief Lynch going to [Block] Island… [laughs].
I think we have 43 now with him leaving. So we’re actually doing interviews right now with certified officers. We’ve had a little bit more of an interest in certified officers, who were either already officers in Connecticut or in other states. So hopefully we’ll find a couple good ones there. If not, then we’ll probably have a new-hire test again where we look to hire somebody brand new.
You just want to find good, qualified officers. But it’s nice to have a good mix, senior officers and some younger officers.
GMW: There’s also been a concerted effort to increase department diversity too. More women officers, more officers with different ethnic or racial backgrounds.
Conlan: We have five female officers. And we’re always looking to get out there and publish our openings. We want to diversify the department and reach people throughout the state. We put [openings] out to 16 area colleges that have criminal justice programs to let them know we’re hiring. We just look to have a good mix.
GMW: So as you prepare to start the chief’s job, what do you want Wilton residents to know?
Conlan: I just want them to know that they’ve got a great group of officers at the Wilton Police Department. I love working here and I’m really looking forward to being the chief of police. I’m going to miss John Lynch, obviously. He was a great asset to the town. And I have his cell phone number, so I’m sure I’ll be bothering him [laughs].
But, I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to lead the town and the department. I couldn’t be happier with the administrative team we have here, with our officers and also with our partnerships with the Fire Department, EMS, and [First Selectwoman] Lynne Vanderslice and the rest of the Board of Selectman. And [Town Administrator] Matt Knickerbocker‘s been a great addition, he’s been really easy to work with. [Fire Chief] Jim Blanchfield‘s been a great asset as chief over there. We work really well together.
Everybody seems to be a team here and they want to work, so the town’s in good hands, not only with me, but obviously with all the support we have around here.
GMW: Are you able to say yet if there’s been a decision about the Director of Emergency Operations position?
Conlan: No, no official decision yet. As of right now, I’m staying as the Deputy Emergency Management Director and taking over that [director] role in the interim, but a formal decision has not been made yet.
GMW: So how do you like the sound of ‘Chief Conlan’?
Conlan: It’s interesting, definitely. People have started to call me ‘Chief’ over here already. It is different, obviously. When I got hired, I remember, they always ask that question, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?’ Of course the answer is, ‘Well I see being chief someday.’ You say it and you’re like, eh, it’s the right answer. But it is kind of surreal now that I am chief.
You know, there’s only been eight of them in Wilton, right? I’m only the eighth one, so when you think of it like that, that’s a little crazy.
People look at you differently when you’re the chief, obviously. Townspeople want to be able to talk and get answers. I’m looking forward to that. I’d usually go with Chief Lynch to the 4th of July fireworks, and I’d just be his wingman, because everybody wanted to talk to the chief. [laughs] I liked when some years he took off from the 4th of July, and I’d be there and people would come up to me and they’d want to talk to me as ‘close’ to the chief.
But yeah, I enjoy that a lot, talking to people. So if you’re out there and you want to talk to the chief, feel free. You’re never going to get a closed door from me. I’m always looking to talk to anybody who wants to talk.
Hey Chief Conlan, Well deserved and best of luck going forward.
The “Dynamic Duo” of Chief Conlan and Deputy Chief Cipolla along with the outstanding Police Staff will continue to serve our town in an exemplary way.
Having served as a Police Commissioner for the prior 10 years, I have seen first hand the growth and development of one excellent police department. Thanks to all who “Serve and Protect” Wilton.
Congratulations on your promotion, Tom Conlan and John Lynch on your retirement after all you contributed to Wilton. My husband and I grew up, (he in the North and me in the South) believing that becoming a police officer was meaningful and positive. It was a career that meant being responsive to your community and helping people while enforcing our laws. I am confident that the heavily publicized police actions in the Rodney King, George Floyd, and Tyre Nichols situations do not represent most policemen. Thanks to the Wilton Police Department for all you do to make Wilton a safe and great place to live.
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