Christopher LaFlamme is far from his first day on the job as a police officer.
Following his graduation from Holyoke Community College in 1975 in criminal justice, LaFlamme, who currently lives in Northampton, where he also grew up, joined the University of Massachusetts Police Department as a police officer in January 1977.
And now, 35 years and many positions later, LaFlamme has confirmed his retirement “within a year” of his upcoming 57th birthday this January, though no official date has been set, he said.
His office is as clean and organized as the next-door evidence storage room. Assorted fruits are lined up on his desk, next to a black stapler and tape dispenser, which sits flush against the computer hard drive. Shredded documents lay torn in a bin. In the adjacent room are rows and rows of neatly arranged confiscated, lost or recovered evidence from campus cases.
LaFlamme, also recognized as the UMPD’s senior officer, has held the department’s first full-time evidence officer position for the past seven years. He handles items such as drugs and lost property from open crime cases tucked away in a lower level of the UMPD building.
“Over the years, you work your way through all the shifts … I’ve kind of hit everything the department had at the time,” with some of his past jobs including work in the detective bureau, horse patrol and armored car patrol, he said.
LaFlamme described his current post as more an “administrative role” than a physically demanding or community engaging one, adding, “it really takes an organized person to do this job.”
“I’m 56 years old, I just can’t wrestle with 20-year-olds anymore … I’ve had enough. After 35 years, the last thing you want to do is drive around in a car all day long. I’m glad this came along,” he said.
LaFlamme said that when he took the job, he was “basically starting from scratch” on how collected evidence was handled and organized in the former system of mismatched records between computer and actual inventory. He said it took him two years to get the information updated.
“I have no regrets. It was a challenge coming in here … but I like challenges,” LaFlamme said.
Overcoming obstacles – physically and mentally – is just part of the job, LaFlamme has learned.
He entered law enforcement still a student at HCC through a community service officer program with the Amherst Police Department, in which participants would enforce security measures on the main streets of Amherst unarmed but in uniform. Part of the program’s very first class of 12 people, LaFlamme and two others would later go on to join the UMPD.
LaFlamme said what he experienced in the 10 years he worked in the detective bureau was the hardest throughout his nearly 40 years of service with the department.
“My time in the detective bureau was very … well, what you see there is something 99 percent of the people will never see,” he said, recalling a few past cases that still haunt him now.
Some of these cases included him having to deal with a student “cut in half” from elevator surfing – jumping on top of one moving elevator to the next – 15 years ago, a suicide from 22nd floor window of the George Washington Tower on move-out day in the 1990s, as well as a young child drowning in a North Village pool in the mid-80s, all of which happened on campus.
“That stuff is never easy to see,” LaFlamme said. “They’re still human, they’re still people. Those are the things that people don’t really hear about, but don’t want to hear about, either.”
Though these cases are on the extreme side of his time with the UMPD, LaFlamme said that when it comes to more common duties as an officer, it was making arrests that he disliked doing most.
“The last thing you want to do is arrest somebody … it’s not enjoyable to arrest people, that being the only option left. But that’s why we’re hired, that’s part of the job, whether you want to do it or not. That’s what society expects the police to do,” he said.
But if there’s one valuable thing he’s learned while at UMass, LaFlamme said the majority of the college community is not responsible for the school’s “ZooMass” party image and student misbehavior.
“Ninety-five percent of students and employees here are not the problem. It’s a very small percentage that gives the University the bad press,” he said. “I think that’s the worst misconception people have of the University or the community.”
LaFlamme does not believe that police alone can reverse the recent trend of increased student misbehavior alone, saying, “Society in general has got to stop it.”
“There’s only so many police available and only so many calls you can handle at once … and I think that’s frustrating to citizens, especially on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said, adding that “for whatever reason,” he thought people “are more confrontational with police” as compared to years past when he worked night patrols.
LaFlamme said student assault and battery on officers appears to be “a lot more prevalent than what’s its been in the past,” saying “It’s becoming more of a problem for (officers) more than ever. I’ve never seen it so bad.”
He said working on a university campus is unique and more challenging than community policing, for example, in the sense that it is essentially one age group – one that heavily questions authority.
“This is a very difficult environment to police in,” LaFlamme said, emphasizing that because of the high turnover of the student population, it is hard for UMPD community outreach to establish a solid sense of community among UMass students.
“There’s no long-term involvement for anyone who’s here. And while (students) want to try and make it a community, they leave in four years,” he said.
“For the most part, it’s been a very positive experience with students and faculty and employees over the past 35 years,” he said. “This is a city in itself, and it takes all these people behind the scenes to make it run.”
Chelsie Field can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org