PLATTSBURGH — This month marks 100 years of Troop B — one of 11 law enforcement troops that protect and serve New York state.
For former Troop Commander John Tibbitts, Troop B is one-of-a-kind.
Starting from its roots of catching booze smugglers violating the Volstead Act in 1921, to capturing national attention during the 2015 Dannemora prison break, Tibbitts said the officers who have suited up for Troop B — which covers Clinton, Franklin, Essex, St. Lawrence and Hamilton counties — have always embodied the original purpose of New York State Police.
Tibbitts, who served as a zone commander for Troop B in 2005 until he became troop commander in 2016, said he dove into the history behind the troop when State Police had its own 100-year anniversary in 2017.
“We found how deeply embedded Troop B was in the community up here. If you look across the state, Troop B is unusual,” Tibbitts said. “The troopers are, in a lot of instances, the only police agencies that you have locally here.”
Tibbitts said that isn’t the case for a lot of New York.
“You can have multiple police agencies there. Local, state, huge county sheriff’s departments,” he said. “But up here, it’s kind of remained similar to what we got originally.”
“There is very little backup. The troopers have to depend on themselves up here,” Tibbitts continued. “We used to have a saying up here: one riot, one trooper.”
What also sets Troop B apart, Tibbitts said, is how connected troopers are to their community.
“Not only were they troopers, they were baseball coaches; they were hockey coaches They did volunteer search and rescue. They were members of the fire departments,” Tibbitts said.
Tibbitts also said a lot of other troops have troopers, supervisors and executive staff who aren’t local and don’t stay in one spot for very long.
Tibbitts was a transplant to his troop, too, coming from Latham, but he said leadership at Troop B does a good job of promoting community within its officers that often gets them to stay.
“They were able to imbue that into troopers, even for the people that didn’t have ownership in the community,” Tibbitts said. “There’s a certain level of pride you take in doing a job like that, especially when serving your friends, your neighbors, your family. It’s special.”
Having that sense of community, Tibbitts said, builds trust between troopers and those they serve.
“It’s a lot easier to approach people and talk to them,” he said. “It’s very unusual for there to be an incident where you don’t know some of the people involved in it, somebody you can go up to and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Did you hear what happened?'”
“There’s that personal connection you don’t get in higher-populated areas.”
Troopers saw that same connection in 2015 when inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, starting a 23-day manhunt that resulted in Matt’s death and Sweat’s capture.
Tibbitts said a lot of troopers were working 24-hour days at checkpoints, being on the lookout for the two escaped inmates.
At checkpoints in Cadyville, residents started giving troopers food until they couldn’t accept any more.
“Then we started getting a lot of donations of soap, deodorant, socks. We were blown away at what the people wanted to do for us,” Tibbitts said.
In order to locate the inmates, Tibbitts said, law enforcement had to evolve their techniques on the fly and try things that were new to Troop B like using newer aircraft, personal location devices, DNA and touch DNA, which were used by the State Police forensics lab.
“We were able to basically track Sweat and Matt from garbage they left behind because the lab worked so efficiently,” Tibbitts said. “I was amazed at how great a job they did.”
Coming up on six years since the escape, Tibbitts said he believes the North Country is still feeling the effects from that event.
“I think the North Country, from an emotional point of view, is still recovering from it a little bit,” he said.
“I mean, it was an armed encampment for just about a month. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing an armed state trooper, an armed federal agent, sheriff’s department, DEC rangers. It became a way of life.”
Tibbitts said troopers saw a renewed appreciation more broadly from the community after the escape.
“It was great to see the people come out and say they get it, that they’re here for you and what can we do to help,” he said. “That’s incredible to hear because you never heard it that much.”
Maj. Charles Guess was the Troop B commander at the time of the escape, commanding more than 1,600 law enforcement personnel.
He wrote a book about the experience entitled, “Relentless Pursuit.”
The escape also became the focus of several television movies and shows, and several other books.
Tibbitts became Troop B’s commander a year after the escape. After learning about the troop’s history, he came across the first captain, Charles Broadfield, whose worn and “cruddy” shoes that were mounted on a board were held in the troop’s museum.
Tibbitts said Broadfield was captain for about 15 years and had a lot of ownership for the position. After he died, Tibbitts said, incoming troopers who filled Broadfield’s spot were told they had large shoes to fill, which is why his shoes were kept and on display.
Tibbitts remounted Broadfield’s shoes on a different board and kept it in the troop commander’s office because he felt the ownership and staying power Broadfield had embodied what the other 26 commanders who came after had.
“There’s a bunch of us troop commanders who are still living, and if you talk to any of them, they’ll tell you that the best time of their life was when they had command of Troop B,” Tibbitts said.
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