Bunnell retires after 42 years with Montville police

In this April 2012 file photo, Montville Police Lt. Leonard Bunnell poses near the town's Public Safety building. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
In this April 2012 file photo, Montville Police Lt. Leonard Bunnell poses near the town's Public Safety building. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Montville — There was no training.

But after an interview in the late 1970s, 26-year-old Leonard Bunnell received a call from the town's police department to see if he still was interested in becoming an officer. He was sworn in within a day or two and the resident state trooper, who oversaw the department, told him to look in one closet for a shirt, another for a pair of pants and another for a hat.

"'You got a gun?'" the trooper asked Bunnell, prompting him to fetch his .357 revolver from home. When he returned a few minutes later to the two-story residential home that housed the five-member police force downstairs and an elderly woman upstairs, the trooper said, "'Yeah, that looks pretty good. We've got some shells over there. You want to work tonight?'"

"They offered me a patrol that night but of course I didn't work it — I didn't know what the hell I was doing," said Bunnell, who eventually became lieutenant and recently retired after 42 years with the Montville Police Department.

Initially a part-time position, the job paid $2.88 an hour. Bunnell attended the police academy in 1981 and despite family roots in Montville and growing up in Waterford, he figured he'd eventually go someplace else.

"I just never left," said Bunnell, 68, as he relaxed on the patio of his Montville home after completing a shift at his retirement gig — a full-time account manager position with Securitas, which contracts with Pfizer in Groton and New Haven. "I went from 26 people under me to 60. That's retirement."

Bunnell and several town officials who praised his efforts said he focused on bringing training, standard operating procedures, manpower and upgraded facilities to Montville over the years. But when asked about what many describe as his major accomplishments, Bunnell credits others.

He said when it came to the state-of-the-art public safety complex that opened in 2013, he simply assisted Carol Lathrop, who helped promote the building, and Town Planner Marcia Vlaun, who oversaw construction. He also credited Vlaun for arranging an engineering study and helping to figure out ways to finance an impound lot at the complex.

While he was part of the team that created the department's first rules and regulations — beyond mere directives that could change as soon as a new resident state trooper took charge — he commended former Lt. Dennis Monahan for leading the way.

Bunnell said "the old cliché: to protect and serve" was why he wanted to be a cop to begin with.

"You want to get involved, you want to contribute to the community and to help," he said. "As corny as that may sound, that's the real reason."

Resident State Trooper Sgt. Mark Juhola said Bunnell had worked tirelessly to improve the police force and always had a spark for community policing and educating area youths.

Mayor Ron McDaniel said Bunnell served "with honor, pride, dignity and the highest level of professionalism."

"Lenny is the epitome of Montville and did more than any other single individual to advance law enforcement in our town," McDaniel said. "He embodied community policing and could always be seen at public events, be it a parade or a ballgame."

Push for independence must wait

Bunnell, who last year reached the state's cap of three extensions to work past the age of 65, has tried to prepare Montville for an independent police force and getting out of the jurisdiction of the resident state trooper system. He argues the system costs a quarter of a million dollars without substantial benefits to the town.

Referendums on an independent police force have failed. Bunnell said Democrats blocked an effort several years ago, while Republicans led the latest rally cry against the move.

He notes the $6.5 million public safety complex is in some ways a "terrible waste," with about "3,000 square feet not being used," including a detention area, evidence processing room and interview rooms.

The building is "ready to go tomorrow" if Montville switched to an independent force, he said. But Bunnell added that the department has lost too many officers and leaders to retirement or other towns within the last year or two, leaving the force lacking in manpower, training and experience required for independence.

Bunnell didn't pull any punches about manpower, saying the town could avoid significant overtime costs if politicians of all parties followed previous studies showing more officers are necessary for investigations, community services, domestic violence and drug issues.

"You save money and you're able to get services out there, being proactive," he said.

Bunnell acknowledged he's faced criticism, including for what he called an "unfounded" sexual harassment complaint and for record check violations several years ago. In the latter case, Bunnell said he ran checks on applicants for volunteer services to expedite a process that otherwise relied on a fingerprint check, which "by the time we got the report back, the season was over. It was a violation. I took a hit."

He said he frequently received no backing from his union over the years, and that he hadn't planned a retirement party, preferring "to go out quietly."

McDaniel said, "there will never be a true replacement" for Bunnell, adding his "retirement, while duly earned and well deserved, is a true loss for the police department."

"I am continuing to work with the resident state trooper and the police union to work out details of finding the right person to assume the duties that the position requires," McDaniel said.

In the meantime, officials say Juhola is serving as an interim executive for the department.

Despite his full-time job at the Pfizer facility in Groton, Bunnell no longer must worry about covering assignments or attending meetings at Town Hall, allowing more time for golfing, softball, riding his Victory motorcycle with his wife, Deonn, and hanging out with his 10 grandchildren.

Will he ever truly retire after keeping busy for so long?

"Sure," said Bunnell, who was an electrician and safety engineer at Electric Boat before he became a police officer. "It'll be a few years. Health is the major factor, and right now I'm feeling good."

b.kail@theday.com

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