Hail to the chiefs

SALEM – Imagine saying “Hi, Chief” and watching five heads turn in reply – that image became reality Wednesday as Salem’s five living police chiefs gathered together for food and fellowship.

“Four of us got together several years ago. I thought, five of us, that’s kind of a record,” retired Chief Mike Weitz said.

The five chiefs, in order of service, included Richard M. Whinnery, John Sommers, Weitz, Bob Floor and current Chief J.T. Panezott, the youngest of the bunch.

Weitz said he knew Whinnery was coming back to town and called Panezott, then got in touch with Floor and Sommers.

“Bob and I thought it would be neat to get all five chiefs together,” Weitz said.

Whinnery, who now resides in Henderson, Nev., joined the Salem Police Department in 1955, serving as chief from 1972 to 1981. He supervised both Sommers and Weitz and started the Salem Police Academy which was continued by Sommers during his tenure. After leaving Salem, he worked another 15 years as the chief of security for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Texas, training other security officers.

Sommers joined the department in 1965 and became chief in 1981, retiring in 1995 with 30 years under his gun belt. He still lives in Salem and ran the police officers’ academy for a few years at the J.V.S., now known as the Columbiana County Career and Technical Center, before retiring for good.

“I just enjoy retirement,” he said.

Weitz, another Salem resident, either worked for or worked with the other four chiefs. Whinnery hired him in 1976 and he worked his way through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant under Sommers. He was named to replace Sommers as chief in 1995 and retired in 2006, having worked with both Floor and Panezott. Now he’s a doting grandfather, with an 18-month-old grandson and a 4-year-old granddaughter who give him his orders.

Floor started his career in Salem under Sommers in 1983 and worked as a lieutenant under Weitz before taking over as chief in 2006, a position he held until Feb. 1 this year. He said he never realized how much stress he had until he left and it was gone.

“I mostly became second-in-command at home,” he quipped, in a household of two which remains in Salem.

Panezott, who was hired by Sommers in 1989, was also assigned by Sommers to the Columbiana County Drug Task Force when it was first formed in 1992. He made sergeant and eventually was assigned to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, spending most of his career on the street in the fight against drugs. He’s been serving as chief since Feb. 1.

Sommers said when they started out, a pot party was considered big. Now he said the drugs are terrible.

“Officers do a tremendous job trying to keep up with it,” he said.

The five men met at the police station first and started trading stories right away. Whinnery recalled when the department went out on strike in 1977 during the first contract for collective bargaining, leaving just him and a young probationary officer, Robert Brown, to keep the peace.

The strike, which was more of a blue flu epidemic since they weren’t legally permitted to strike, lasted 58 hours. Brown went on to become a detective before retiring.

Weitz was the first to have $1 million in his budget – now the budget’s about $1.5 million, according to Panezott.

“Now that I’m one of the old guys, it’s nice to get together and talk and see how the department has changed,” Floor said.

Back in the earlier days, they used night sticks to subdue people who got out of hand – now they use tasers. They used typewriters to write up reports and now they use computers, although Whinnery recalled them getting the first computer when he was there. In the early days, they didn’t have radios, either, or cell phones.

Call boxes were placed throughout town and an officer walking the beat could go to the call box and call in to the dispatcher.

Whinnery explained that they had a red light on a tower and if the dispatcher needed an officer, the light was switched on and officers knew they needed to run to a call box or back to the station.

The layout of the police department has changed, too. The chief’s office used to be a garage. The jail is gone, now serving as dispatch and the detective’s office.

They all thought it was great to get together to talk about the old days – they shared a lot of history.

“I get the opportunity to pick the brains of four decades worth of chiefs,” Panezott said.

Police secretary Debbie Thomas, who recently returned to the position part-time, worked under all four of the former chiefs and now works for Panezott. Weitz said she always anticipated what they needed.

Thomas said they’re all different, but declined to answer when Panezott asked her to identify her favorite chief.

The story-telling continued during lunch at BB Rooners, where they were also joined by retired Salem Police Lt. Ray Esterly.