The new commander of the St. Johnsbury State Police Barracks is a polite, soft spoken, family man and he is living his childhood dream.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” said Lt. Hugh O’Donnell on Thursday, as he introduced himself and discussed a wide range of issues faced by law enforcement in the Northeast Kingdom. “It’s just something I’ve always had an interest in.”
But it’s a dream that was delayed for a bit after high school as he first served his county in the United States Navy as an aviation ordnance-man on amphibious assault ships.
“Loading bombs on airplanes,” said O’Donnell, 46, describing his time in the military. “We carried Marines around, jumper jets and helicopters.”
O’Donnell - who grew up in the Hartford, Vermont area and graduated from Hartford High School - spent nine years in the navy. But then things changed and he returned home to start a new life which began with a job in the aerospace industry. He stayed in that job only long enough to launch his dream of a becoming a police officer.
“When I got out of the navy my wife was pregnant and we moved back here,” said O’Donnell. “My family’s from the area but we didn’t have jobs. So I found a job as quick as I could and I started applying (for police positions) and then I got accepted to the police academy.”
Upon graduation, O’Donnell was assigned as a rookie state trooper to the Bradford Barracks and he has since done a lot in his 15 year career including assignments as road trooper, patrol commander, detective and commander of the VSP Tactical Services Unit (TSU) in 2014.
He commanded the specialized unit until 2018 when he along with one of the troopers under his command were re-assigned after the TSU was involved in a fatal officer-involved shooting at Montpelier High School.
In July, O’Donnell was selected to replace former St. Johnsbury Barracks Commander Lt. Matt Amadon - who was transferred to state police headquarters to become assistant staff operations commander.
O’Donnell inherits a job with growing challenges.
One is the consolidation of the Bradford and St. Johnsbury Barracks which created a massive, sprawling patrol area of small communities in multiple counties and a lengthy highway system that connects it all.
“It’s a very long area,” said O’Donnell. “I think we have 70 miles of interstate.”
O’Donnell said he sees two major problems that law enforcement is now dealing with in the Northeast Kingdom.
“Obviously the drug problem and you can see the homicide rates going up recently around here,” said O’Donnell, referencing a series of unsolved Northeast Kingdom homicides.
But O’Donnell’s strategy to combat drug crimes and homicides includes far more than just police agencies and police actions.
He says drug abuse is a “community problem” that requires a community approach that starts with battling the influx of illegal drugs into the Northeast Kingdom by arresting traffickers and dealers but also taking steps to help addicts get clean so they stop being drug customers.
“Interacting with people,” said O’Donnell. “I have meetings with NVRH and at Northeast Kingdom Human Services. Trying to get resources if we’re dealing with people on cases that are addicts.”
Troopers from the St. Johnsbury Barracks are also reaching out to local schools to help stop drug addiction before it starts.
“We’ve got troopers that are assigned to schools in out patrol area,” said O’Donnell. “They try to touch base with principals. Sometimes they’ll talk at assemblies. We ask that they swing by once a month, check in and say hi. If they can have lunch with the kids, great. It helps us stay face to face with the kids. So it’s not only when bad things happen.”