by Dan McClelland
Tupper Lake's Tom Fee has been a police officer here for 40 years- a milestone few other law enforcement officers have celebrated here.
In recent weeks the village presented the oldest member of the local force with a plaque inscribed with a message of commendation for his long and dedicated service to the village and its police force.
Mr. Fee, who retired six years ago as police chief, now works as a patrolman without employment benefits, the result of which the village sees big payroll savings.
He told the Free Press last week much has changed in the business of law enforcement in his four decades on the squad. The most troubling change is the number of teenagers and adults on drugs. “They are right into the hard drugs!
The switch from marijuana and cocaine to narcotics and heroin has been both sharp and dramatic here, like in many small towns in America today.
“If you would have told me ten years ago I would be delivering Narcan on the street I would have told you that you were crazy!”
He said the scope of the drug problem in Tupper Lake is far beyond what people think it is.
Narcan (naloxone) is an anti-drug spray which is administered up the nasal passage of an over-dosing opioid or heroine drug user to resuscitate them and save their life.
It binds to opioid receptors in the brain, preventing opioids from binding there. It revives the user in two to five minutes.
The role of police officer has changed dramatically over the years here, he knows well. Today it is part law enforcement, part social work, as domestic incidents and drug-related investigations take more and more of a police officer's time and attention.
Tom joined the local force at the age of 22 after working for a short time at another police department in New Hampshire. He worked for a time with his father Creighton at his surveying business. In high school he worked as a swimming instructor and life guard at Little Wolf Beach.
Tom's brother Kevin was also a swimming instructor here and Tom also followed him into the local police force, where Kevin worked until later joining the Ogdensburg city force.
Tom's first day on the Tupper Lake force was in February, 1979.
His first chief was the late Clarence Bell and Tom was employed on a trial basis that year because the force was expanding to 12 from its traditional 10 officers because of the coming 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Officials then thought Tupper Lake was to see a huge economic boom from the Olympics when in fact it saw none. The place was like a ghost town when none of the expected Olympic visitors and lodgers arrived.
In 1993 Tom made sergeant and in 2007 he was named chief by the village board.
He served as chief until February, 2013.
One of the best things to happen during that time- and something he pushed strongly for- was the arrival of the county emergency services office to dispatch local police calls. It began as a part-time initiative on weekends and after a strong push from Chief Fee and local leaders it was eventually embraced full-time by the county. The 911 service out of Malone saved the village the cost of paying local dispatchers and put more officers on the street more often.
When he retired from the department's top post, he left open the door he could return. “I also wanted the option I could go somewhere else and do the same thing!”
“We were in Florida and Eric (Police Chief Eric Proulx) called me to stop and see him when I got back home.”
He rejoined the force as a patrolman again shortly after their conversation.
Since then Officer Fee has worked for straight salary, and no village employment benefits, because those benefits now come from his police retirement program.
“Tom saves us $50,000 a year,” Mayor Paul Maroun recently commented.
Officer Fee is fast approaching 62 years of age and initially was told he would have to hang up his gun and badge then. He recently learned, after Chief Proulx contacted the county civil service office, he can work into the foreseeable future, which he plans to do for a time.
That will prove valuable for Tupper Lake as the long-time officer has a wealth of information about the community and its residents at his fingertips.
He said that many old-timers here often ask for him when they visit the station, because they have worked with him in the past and are comfortable working with him.
Tom said he likes doing the job of policeman and working with the guys on the team. “We have a good group of guys in the department right now!”
Officer Fee confided that when he goes to work every day, no matter what the shift, he looks forward to it!
As a young officer, he said, he thought his police career would end at the 25-year retirement date, but his law enforcement career and its path just keep winding on.