William Graham: Law enforcement in Putney

on Jul 27th 2008

By Stuart Strothman, June 2002

For every land where reasonable law is held as the standard for society, there must be people to enforce the law. These people are in a demanding position, not only because bravery and clarity are required as a matter of course, but because a careful balance must be found between law enforcement, peacekeeping, and respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. William Graham, as a longtime citizen and well-respected law enforcement officer in the town of Putney, with more than thirty years spent as Windham County Sheriff, seems to have created a comfortable balance in his lifetime, as has Henry Farnum, also of Putney, fourteen years his chief deputy and recently county sheriff. Though many people in Windham may not realize, citizens of the town of Putney have played a very important role in the development of reliable law enforcement, county wide.

Will Graham came to Putney from New York at the age of eight years. His folks worked at American Optical in Brattleboro. As a young man he worked at the Basketville factory, and became a manager there—he notes that many of the young people trying to earn some money in that period either worked at Basketville, or at the mill. He also married, very happily, Phyllis Austin, with whom he had attended the former central school, now painted white and serving as a residence atop Kimball Hill. He spent ten years as a Vermont state trooper, working at an outpost in Fairlee in the fifties and early sixties; also during that period he served as probation and parole officer for juveniles in the Windham area. Up north in Thetford in 1957, he was one of the officers who fished farmer Orville E. Gibson out of the Connecticut River after two months, the victim of an apparent murder.

In the fifties, to ticket speeders, a man had to follow in his car and gauge with his own speedometer. In 1958, when personalized license plates first became available, Graham acquired one that reads ‘WILL’, and Lawrence A. Washburn, another former state trooper from Putney, got his proclaiming ‘LAW’—much to the chagrin of Putney’s Lawrence A. Wade, who wanted that plate for his own. In 1963, Graham became first constable of the town of Putney.

During the sixties he served the town of Putney, primarily as first constable, but also at times as grand juror, agent, lister, and as a member of the school board. As the newly founded Windham College increased in size, he became a very busy man.

As Graham describes it, the College created a situation where a thousand or more young people were placed in a small and fairly conservative Vermont town, in the “middle of the program,” as it were. The sixties were a heady time, with communes developing, and politics pitting “the local guys against the college people.” Some of the locals gave “just as much grief,” as the police had the attitude that as long as the students behaved themselves and obeyed the law, they were not a problem. Still, there was much to do—greatly increased noise, use of controlled substances, and protest standoffs between anti-war demonstrators and conservative supporters kept first constable Graham and second constable Malcolm (Mac) Jones, Jr., busy day and night, and especially in the later sixties, it was hard to get any sleep. Up until the late sixties there were no two-way radios, and the constables would be alerted by a particular light outside town hall, which would indicate that they should call in to see what the problem was.

On January 20, 1969, Graham became sheriff, the only full-time staffer on the force, and was often busy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, or near to it. Windham was the first county to buy an automobile for its sheriff, a secondhand car in 1969, equipped with a radio owned by Graham. In 1970 the town contracted with the county sheriff, and Graham hired Mac Jones as the first full-time deputy sheriff, one of the first in the state of Vermont. In 1972 a benefit auction was held, and some money borrowed, to pay for a two-way radio system for the county. The sheriff and the deputies were responsible for maintenance; “Each of the guys would do their own oil changes, and fix the equipment. Now we have all modern equipment” (all quotes in this section from William Graham, Oct. 9, 2002). Also around this time Graham chaired the original Green-Up Day committee. That first year it was a big job, and the interstate was closed for four hours as volunteers cleaned the trash from the sides of the road. For thirty years since, he has been active in the annual May event.

The construction of jails, which had been a state priority, stopped in the early seventies, and though a federal prison was nearly set up on the Windham campus in Putney in 1980, it was defeated by the townspeople at an historic special meeting. Graham states that the proposed facility was very nice, and notes that at the time it seemed like he and his wife were the only ones who voted in favor of it. But no local jail was ever forthcoming, and the sheriff and deputies have ever transported up to a thousand prisoners annually to correctional facilities in Rutland, Woodstock, St. Albans, and St. Johnsbury.

Maintaining a county sheriff’s department in Vermont requires the mindset of a business manager. Funding for the real needs of law enforcement officers is not simply provided in full from a single source; the state pays the salaries of the full-time personnel and the sheriff, and for the transportation of prisoners. Other personnel must be privately contracted to do road detail. Also, the contractual relationship of different towns and the county sheriff varies quite a bit: Stratton has been required for the past decade (by Act 250) to have officers available full time, and they hire through the county sheriff. Specific contracts for law enforcement (and consequent payment of taxes) exist in ten towns, including Putney, Saxtons River, Jamaica, Stratton, Newfane, Guilford, Brookline, Dummerston, Westminster, and Athens. If, for example, Brookline is having difficulties with speeders or breaking and entering, they will contract with the sheriff, hiring patrol officers for (at the time of this writing) twenty dollars an hour.

Memories of specific incidents requiring the sheriff’s intervention across the years include a situation involving a stolen canoe; Graham declared publicly that it had better be returned straightaway, and in the morning, there it was in front of the town hall. Another moment, perhaps the most frightening in all his years, came after a report of shooting from a East Putney neighbor. Walking in the pitch black night, in the place where the shooting supposedly came from, a man placed his hand on Graham’s shoulder, startling him. It turned out this was just the property owner, who knew Graham and wanted to say that he hadn’t been doing any shooting. But undoubtedly, some of the frequent issues that Graham and his deputies have to deal with, such as domestic violence, are potentially dangerous. Another less frightening but difficult problem has involved parking; in the early eighties when parking regulations to make plowing easier were put into effect prohibiting parking on roads or overnight in the villages, many arguments arose among Vermonters who weren’t used to such limitations of freedom. Even now, parking regulations continue to be difficult to enforce. Other problems needing regular attention include breaking and entering, speeding, and complaints of speeding in different locations in the county.

All of these problems have been present in Putney; in recent years, the deputies have also had to patrol popular, seasonal hangouts of Landmark College students, such as Putney Mountain and the boat landings on the Connecticut. On repeated occasions in the past years, students driving on River Road have managed to destroy his split rail fence, which he has rebuilt over and again. Still, Graham manages to find humor in such misfortune, and this quality along with his fairness and reliability have led to real popularity—even the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, endorsing Farnum’s rival Sheila Prue, described him as “popular” (Nov. 2-3, 2002, p. 4)—which has kept him in his elected office for three decades. He was even invited recently to a twenty-five year reunion of Windham students.

Also, he has brought considerable professionalism to the position. Officers who apply for county positions are required to have a high school diploma and criminal justice training from the state of Vermont; there is also a psychological exam, a record check, and even a polygraph, which is not usually required in Vermont. Then there is a personal interview involving the sheriff and a local citizen from one or another town served by the sheriff. Dave Hannum and Mike Muscat of Putney have both served on this committee on different occasions. Many of the leaders in the department, such as Graham, Mac Jones, Henry Farnum, and John Melvin, have undergone a twelve-week FBI training program in Washington, taking advantage of some of the best police training available in the United States. To increase awareness of speeding, a decade ago the Windham Sheriff’s Dept. was the first in the state to acquire the trailers which can be placed at the roadside to notify drivers of the speed they are traveling, compared to the actual limit. Now the department has five, at a cost of $9600 each. These trailers reflect the ethics that underlie effective law enforcement in a town-governed, community-minded place like Windham County; that if the citizen is made aware of the law, and can understand why those laws are in place (trailers are often situated, for example, at public schools), the citizen will make an informed decision not just to obey the law, but to be considerate of others in a general way. That way we all can have safety, and as much as possible, good relations with our neighbors.

Thanks to Bill and Phyllis Graham, for both the interview and review afterward.


Interview of William Graham, Oct. 9, 2002. At the offices of Phyllis Graham on Rounds Hill Rd. in East Putney.

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