BELFAST, Maine — Belfast’s new police chief has law enforcement experience that runs the gamut from brushing elbows with Hollywood stars to keeping New Hampshire youth on the straight and narrow.
But community policing has Bobby Cormier’s heart.
“That’s what I love. My favorite part of the job is being out there in the community,” Cormier, 60, said Tuesday. “I want to go out there and start meeting people and have them get to know me and feel comfortable talking to me. I always tell people, ‘Don’t feel like you have to come by with a problem to see us.’ We like company.”
The new chief already is familiar with Belfast because his wife, Jennifer, grew up in the Belfast area and has family here. When she saw the city was searching for a new chief, she called Cormier and asked if he’d apply.
When he said yes, she moved quickly.
“By the time I got home from work, she already had my resume and everything ready to mail off,” he said.
It wasn’t a hard sell for him.
“Belfast has kind of figured out how to be a great, thriving community,” he said. “People are very involved, and it has a lot of good stuff going on. Sometimes in small cities and towns, the downtown areas can struggle. But you don’t see that here at all.”
The Belfast police department, with 16 full-time and between three and five part-time officers, is currently hiring, with the city offering a $20,000 sign-on bonus. It’s a young department, with many relatively new officers — something that Cormier sees as a potential strength.
“I look at new officers as an opportunity for some new ideas,” he said, adding that he seeks to hire people who share his commitment to being friendly, courteous, approachable and caring.
The small midcoast city does make a change of pace from some of his earlier posts. Cormier grew up in Woburn, Massachusetts, where his father was a firefighter. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in the fire station and would even go out on fire calls with the department.
“My dad wanted me to be a firefighter in the worst way,” he said.
But as a teen, he was torn. He took civil service exams for both the police and fire departments, and scored better on the police test. Cormier worried that if he went into policing, he would need to become more serious and stern. He knew some police officers and asked for their opinion.
“I said, ‘I just don’t want to change. I want to be the same. I’m kind of a happy-go-lucky, easy-going kind of guy.’ And they said, ‘No, you can be whatever kind of police officer you want to be,’” Cormier said.
Cormier took that advice to heart as he became a police officer, working first in the city of Woburn and a few years later in Los Angeles. He made the jump to the West Coast after visiting family there in the wintertime and being dazzled by the warmth and sunshine of southern California. He was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department and started work there in 1992.
His first assignment was Hollywood.
“I was so excited,” he said.
One of the more unique aspects of working the Hollywood beat was serving on the security detail for movie stars who were putting their hand and footprints on the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
“It was pretty exciting, being a kid from Woburn and being able to watch celebrities put their hands in the concrete,” he said.
One day, he was assigned to serve as the bodyguard for action star Steven Seagal, who wanted to go around and shake the hand of everyone on Hollywood Boulevard. Cormier, who is 5’8”, looked up at the 6’4” martial artist he was meant to protect.
“I said, ‘This is pretty funny, me bodyguarding you, when it should be the other way around.’ He started laughing,” Cormier recalled.
His time in Los Angeles wasn’t all glitz and glamor. He also worked at units that dealt with gang and narcotic activity, including the 77th Street Division, which was home to many members of the Crips and Bloods.
The neighborhood could be dangerous, with unsuspecting people getting shot just for wearing the wrong color.
“It was pretty intense,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people that live in the division, but unfortunately they had to grow up and live with gang activity around them, day in and day out. So our goal in the 77th was to try and make them feel safe and protect their neighborhoods.”
By the year 2000, Cormier was ready to return to New England, where he eventually became the police chief for the Tilton, New Hampshire, police department. The not-quite-4,000-person town was a far cry from Los Angeles, and its slower pace offered lots of opportunities for community policing, he said.
It also wasn’t boring.
The community served as a kind of gateway to New Hampshire’s lakes region, with millions of people driving through it annually. Every four years, it attracted a specific kind of visitor — politicians vying to become president. Many would call Cormier and ask him to meet them for coffee.
“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, they all wanted to go to the Tilt’n Diner, and I got to meet them all,” he said.
In 2015, trouble came to Tilton, along with many other New England communities, in the form of the opioid epidemic. Searching for solutions, Cormier helped bring Law Enforcement Against Drugs, an evidence-based drug prevention curriculum that was developed in New Jersey, to local schools.
After the first semester it was offered, he went into the classroom to ask 7th grade students what they thought of it.
“I said, ‘Be honest with me. I don’t want to waste your time. I don’t want to waste ours. Is this good or not?’ And a little girl raised her hand and she goes, ‘Chief, this is exactly what you should be teaching us,’” he said. “It ended up being a homerun for us.”
The program, which research has found to be effective in deterring young people from using drugs, expanded across New Hampshire, and has been picked up by other states, too. Cormier is hoping to expand the program to Belfast.
In addition to the challenges posed by illegal drugs, Cormier also hopes to also address day-to-day issues in Belfast like speeding.
It’s all part of the police department’s mission of making life a little safer for everyone in Belfast.
“We want to make the residents feel proud of their police department and safe in their community,” Cormier said.