Mike T. Tollett’s path to policing is a winding road that twists through several states and a few odd jobs.
Winchester’s new police chief, sworn in last month, graduated from the academy nine years ago. But Tollett, 50, has a résumé that includes pest control and loss prevention. He and his family jumped from the Lone Star State to Florida’s Panhandle before making their way north.
As a police officer, he says he’s made it his mission to keep his boots on the ground and remember that people are the most important part of the job.
He loves working with youth in the community and meeting new people. He and his wife, Susan, are foodies; he hates vegetables at home but will try anything new in a restaurant. They love live music, from Avenged Sevenfold to Lady Gaga.
But he values family above all else. On New Year’s Day, Tollett and his wife and adult children played board games at home.
As Tollett says plainly: “Life is an experience: Live it.”
Born in Pasadena, Texas, Tollett grew up in a suburb outside of Houston, where he met Susan. The couple married in 1996 and have three sons: Cameron, 22, and 20-year-old twins Conner and Cole.
Throughout his 20s and 30s, Tollett says, he worked “a gazillion different jobs,” and his family moved across the country as opportunities presented themselves.
“Your time on Earth is very short — 70 good years, healthy years, if you’re really lucky,” he says. “Why live in one little place in the United States of America when you can move around and see different things?”
Beginning around 1995, Tollett worked in pest control, first in Texas and then in Florida for a couple years. Then he got a chance to segue into the retail industry by working in loss prevention, and the Tolletts moved to Baltimore in 2003. The proximity to Washington, D.C., allowed for frequent museum trips, diversity and cultural exposure.
In 2007, the family moved to Walpole and “fell in love with the countryside” when Tollett landed another loss-prevention position at the Hinsdale Walmart.
Through his time in retail, Tollett says he often had a close working relationship with local police departments. Not long after coming to Walpole, some of the Hinsdale officers encouraged him to apply to work at their department part time. In 2009, a full-time position opened, and he got the job.
In January 2012, he also started working part-time at the Walpole Police Department.
Tollett served in Hinsdale through 2012 before joining the Winchester Police Department, where he moved up the ranks from a youth aid officer to a sergeant, lieutenant and now the chief.
He and his family moved to Swanzey a couple of years ago, and he notes that, in their marriage, he and Susan have never lived in a state as long as they’ve been in New Hampshire. Tollett says they’ve settled here and don’t expect to leave, but he’s grateful for the opportunities they had to travel and see so much of the country.
The badge beckons
Raised in a family of law-enforcement officers, Tollett says he toyed with the idea of becoming a police officer into his teenage years. His father, Michael, is a retired captain for a sheriff’s department in Texas, and his late uncle John was a retired police chief. Tollett remembers ride-alongs and seeing plenty of uniformed officers growing up, but he didn’t pursue a career in the field.
“I was never an overachiever. I never pushed myself,” he says. “… To me, it was too daunting of a task. You have to go to a police academy, and you gotta run and get yelled at.”
When he worked at Walmart and the Hinsdale officers encouraged him to apply to their department, Tollett says, it took more than a year of internal debates and discussions with his wife.
“The thing that I told her was, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be 65 years old and look back and say, man, when I was 40, I wish I had done that.’ I didn’t want to have any regrets later in life,” he says.
After he applied for the part-time position, Tollett says a full-time slot opened up, and he got the job six or seven weeks later.
“And that’s kind of been the story of my career,” he says. “Everything has happened really quick.”
Since he graduated from the police academy in 2010, he’s known that the badge was his calling. Tollett donned the uniform much later in life than most, and a few challenges came with that — the physical aspect of the academy wasn’t his favorite, he says, and he was often teased for being “the old guy.”
But he overcame these obstacles and says his professional past made him more successful.
“I can relate to all these different people because I have done so many different jobs, and you can’t put a price tag on life experience when it comes to this field,” he says. “The reason a lot of young cops struggle is because they have no life experience. They don’t have anything to relate to.”
His promotions throughout his years in law enforcement, including his latest one, have validated what he calls his “midlife career change.”
“The support of this community reminds me every day that I’m doing the right thing,” he says.
Tollett credits his family for much of his success, too. His father drove up from Texas to watch him graduate from the police academy, and Tollett acknowledges the sacrifices his family has made for his career.
His wife told him in the beginning that she didn’t want to hear about any child sex-abuse cases, Tollett says, “and sadly, that is a big part of my job.” Relationships are typically built on communication and trust, he notes, but marriage to a police officer can mean not sharing all the details.
“Your spouse has to be all in because you’re not a police officer just when you’re on duty,” he says. “Twenty-four hours a day, you’re a police officer, and your family becomes the family of a police officer, and it’s not easy.”
When he started the job, Tollett says, they had many discussions with their kids, covering the stigma that can come with having a cop for a dad and developing an action plan if Tollett needed to respond to an emergency situation and the children were present.
Tollett says the job offered an avenue for him and his wife to have constructive conversations with their kids, explaining reality and the “seedy side of life” that people often avoid discussing, while also encouraging empathy toward others.
Since being sworn in as police chief Dec. 26, Tollett says the outpouring of support has been overwhelming and humbling.
It has included an email from state Sen. Jay V. Kahn, visits from local pastors, and a cactus plant from a local resident. Tollett says he can’t get a coffee from Mr. Mike’s without being stopped and congratulated.
He makes plenty of jokes about loving the spotlight, but then gets serious about what it means for a town to care so much about its police force.
“I want that positive vibe with the community and the relationship of this department to just blossom and continue to grow,” Tollett says.
Wendy Rawling of Alstead was one of many grinning Winchester police officers taking photos and videos of Tollett when he was sworn in as chief last month.
“I’m really happy he got the position, because if he didn’t, I was worried that he wouldn’t stay,” Rawling says Thursday. “And I always told him if he doesn’t stay, I’m not staying, ’cause I think he’s really the backbone of our department.”
Most of her colleagues feel the same way, she says. Tollett led the department as officer-in-charge after the former chief, Gary A. Phillips, retired in July. Rawling says Tollett guides people without being pushy, treats everyone equally and doesn’t lose his temper.
“He’s an honest guy. He’ll tell you if you screwed up but doesn’t make you feel little, you know,” she says. “He still makes you feel OK ’cause everybody’s human, we all screw up.”
Rawling worked with Tollett at the Walpole Police Department, and in late 2015, he asked her to join him in Winchester in a part-time position. A few months later, a full-time slot opened, and Rawling says she’s seen improvements at the Winchester department in her three years there. Tollett promotes community engagement and youth interaction, she says.
“It’s not the old-fashioned, you just stop people, go on calls and don’t shake hands and kiss babies. We shake hands and kiss babies, you know, which I like. It’s very community-oriented,” Rawling says.
She adds that Tollett still patrols with the officers in his role as chief, which she says is a nice touch.
And Tollett says he makes an intentional effort to remember his roots. He still works as a part-time officer at the Walpole Police Department, and he’ll continue teaching the D.A.R.E. drug- and violence-prevention program in local schools.
Tollett has been a D.A.R.E. officer in Walpole for seven years, and this will be his sixth year in Winchester, which hadn’t had the program before he introduced it. Rawling became a D.A.R.E. officer two years ago, so now the program is offered to 5th- and 7th-graders in Winchester.
“I’m very proud to bring that into the schools,” Tollett says.
The D.A.R.E. program was a major motivator in keeping his part-time status in Walpole, he says, but he also likes working one or two shifts a month as a regular police officer.
“It’s nice to get in a cruiser and go patrol and wave at people, maybe go pull a car over or two, and not have the chief — or the lieutenant, before — responsibilities,” he says. “… It keeps me grounded; it keeps me connected and reminds me of why I’m doing the job, which is I had fun being a police officer and doing those basic officer functions.”