NEWBURYPORT — Former Newburyport police Marshal Thomas Howard announced his immediate retirement last Friday, but after 40 years on the job, he admits it will take some time to get used to not being a full-time officer.
Howard, who turns 60 in June, says he'll be spending the next six months or so sitting back and relaxing without much of a plan. He’ll be aided by his wife, Michelle, and his love of woodworking, which for years has served as a safety valve, reducing the pent-up pressure that grew as the city’s top law enforcement officer.
“I have no desire to be monitoring what’s going on in the future,” Howard said.
Howard’s announcement, which on the surface seemed abrupt — he informed his 30-plus officers of his decision to leave Friday and by yesterday was cleaning his desk — was actually months in the making, he insisted.
In his exit statement released Friday afternoon, Howard told his staff that he was taking a medical leave and submitting his paperwork with the city’s retirement board.
While his health is still good, he admitted the everyday stress of the job wasn’t doing his body any favors. The region’s harsh winter only reinforced his feeling that he needed a break.
“The suddenness of my retirement, while shocking or sudden to many, is not surprising to those close to me. It was only after many conversations with my family and medical team on Friday morning that I made the final decision. As many know, I’ve had some medical bumps along the way and I’ve been advised that the continued stress of this job is not in my best interest,” Howard said.
Howard joined the department as a special officer in 1975 but was soon off to neighboring Newbury, where he worked for three years before joining the Newburyport Police Department for good in 1978. For almost the last 14 years he has led the department.
Until a permanent replacement is hired, the department will be overseen by acting City Marshal Mark Murray. Murray is on vacation until Friday, but he was notified of Howard’s retirement and his new role prior to leaving.
Yesterday morning, Howard was visited by several regional chiefs who stopped by en-mass to wish their colleague well.
Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler was effusive in his praise for the man who helped him get settled in his first police chief job, calling Howard his colleague, mentor and friend.
“He was very gracious in mentoring me in becoming a chief,” Fowler said. “He made my transition very easy.”
Fowler and Howard would often be seen at weekly Rotary meetings and, when Fowler was involved in the fatal shooting of a suicidal man on Railroad Avenue last May, Howard was one of the first officers there at the scene. It was Howard who supported Fowler in the immediate aftermath and actually gave him a ride from the shooting scene to the station.
“I’ll miss working with him,” Fowler said.
Former Georgetown police Chief Jim Mulligan, now Rockport police commissioner, said Howard’s tenure as marshal had a calming effect for a department that had seen much turmoil and strife in the years before.
“I have the highest respect for him as a law enforcement officer and an administrator. I am honored to be a friend of his. He is a top-notch police officer,” Mulligan said.
Howard said much of that success came not from his ability but from the integrity and hard work of his officers and command staff who truly understood the term “community policing.” He spoke with pride as he discussed the department becoming known across the region and locally for its community policing efforts and collaborative programs with the community. Whether motorcycle and bike patrols or simply the sight of police officers walking downtown and the presence of police officers at community events, being part of the city’s very fabric was vital to Howard.
“As I quietly walk away, I’m proud of the strong relationship with the community and that we have always remained focused on a community policing style of policing,” Howard said.
Under Howard’s watch the department became one of 13 communities to become accredited by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission, and for the last nine years has been re-accredited. Funding was secured to install defibrillators in marked cruisers and to increase security in the downtown area and boardwalk section by installing video cameras.
Newburyport became one of the first departments in the region to carry Narcan, the life-saving drug used to treat heroin overdoses, and for years has maintained a school resource officer within the city’s schools.
As for the future of the department, Howard said there are plenty of rising stars who will flourish no matter who is leading the department. Among the many young officers who have joined the department in recent years are Michael Traister, Megan Muldowney, John Gavin and school resource officer Gregory Whitney.
“I’m confident that the officers are the best of the best and Newburyport will continue to grow as a place that is safe and great to raise a family,” Howard said.
Even as the department’s chief administrator, Howard never forgot his roots as a patrol officer. Without fail, if he was driving in his command vehicle and witnessed a traffic offense, Howard wouldn’t hesitate to pull the operator over and issue a ticket if necessary. Howard saw it as leading by example, saying he never would ask his officers to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do himself.
“It will always be in my blood being a street cop,” Howard said.
Howard admitted it will be a challenge to simply stop. Asked how long it might take to get used to retirement, Howard said he didn’t have a clue.
“It’s going to be different, no question,” Howard said. “This career has been too short. I’d love to start it again.”