BURRILLVILLE – One could say that Major Dennis Leahey, executive officer for the Burrillville Police Department, was ahead of his time when he started his career.
Leahey, who was hired by Chief Wallace Lees in 1988, said he has always believed that police work is enhanced by the relationships you build with the community.
“The closer you are to your community, the more effective you can be,” he said.
The major’s last day with the department will be Friday, March 27, and soon, he’ll take on a new role as program manager with the HOPE Initiative, an organization that partners law enforcement with clinicians to address addiction issues.
It’s a challenge well-suited for the major, considered a premiere leader in the field of domestic violence in the state.
Speaking with NRI NOW on Friday, Leahey recalled his early years of service with the BPD.
“When I was brand new, I literally can remember the first person I arrested,” he said. “I can remember transporting him back to headquarters.”
Along the ride, he said, the man told him, “I have something that you don’t.”
“I’m from here – born and raised. You’re not from here and you never will be.”
“In terms of the way this community has embraced me, and this department in general, he was 100 percent wrong,” Leahey said this week.
At the time, he notes, the idea of “community policing,” or building good friendships within the town, in part to address larger societal issues, was not highly valued.
“I think, at first, it was falling on deaf ears,” Leahey said. “It wasn’t kicking in doors and catching bad guys.”
“I’ve gotten close to a lot of people in this town,” Leahey said. “It’s helped to solve cases.”
Three decades and four police chiefs later, the major says he’s grateful that there’s been a shift in the overall approach to police work.
“Police officers, in general, have learned the value of community relations,” he said.
“We have embraced community policing,” he added of the Burrillville department. “It’s really at the core of what we do here.”
The major pointed to the department’s annual Christmas toy drive, which fills the building with a variety of distractions, from stuffed animals to volunteers, in the weeks leading up to the holiday, a situation that was once unheard of.
“It looks like a Toys R Us or a Walmart for weeks in here,” he said.
Leahey said the community outreach has especially thrived under Col. Stephen Lynch. But it was advice he received from Lees early on that he says most shaped his career.
Lees told him, “The most important call that you’re ever going to go on is the one you just left.”
“I thought that was very wise,” said Leahey. “Cops need to understand that, even though it might seem mundane and boring, it’s important.”
“I’m not sure I understood what he meant at the time. I certainly know now,” Leahey added, noting it’s advice he now gives to younger officers.
A New Jersey native, Leahey said he first ventured north to attend Providence College. He was hired by the department as a patrolman, and promoted to sergeant in 1987. In 1994, he became a lieutenant, and he was given the title of major in 2015 under Lynch.
For the past three years, he’s served as the colonel’s second in command as the department’s executive officer.
The wide-ranging position oversees three out of four BPD lieutenants, a job Lynch notes is, “incredibly challenging.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better person to come in and do the job,” Lynch said of Leahey. “Filling his shoes will be really hard for someone to do.”
“He dedicated himself to this department and this community,” Lynch added. “The one word that comes to mind is dedication.”
Leahey said the most interesting case he worked on during his time in Burrillville was the 2015 murder of Domingo Ortiz.
“That was a very, very interesting investigation,” he said.
Leahey said the case started with a request for a welfare check from the Worcester Police Department. The major went to the Burrillville home of Steven Pietrowicz, where Ortiz had last called his daughter, and at first found nothing.
But Ortiz’s daughter wasn’t convinced, insisting she “had a feeling” something wasn’t right.
Leahey said it’s not the kind of statement he would normally give much credence, but in this case, “she made a believer out of me.”
The roughly 40-day investigation eventually led Burrillville police to Pennsylvania, where they interviewed a man who had been at Pietrowicz’s the week that Ortiz went missing.
“At the culmination of the interview, he tells us where Domingo is buried,” Leahey said.
Pietrowicz and his girlfriend, Michelle Morin, had dragged Ortiz out the side door of their home and buried him in the yard, then poured a cement slab and and built a deck on top. BPD dug up the remains.
It was a rare chance, Leahey said, to investigate a capital crime and actually make an arrest – not something all officers experience during their career.
“The relief the Ortiz family felt was immense,” he said.
But Leahey, a father of three, noted that not every aspect of the job is as satisfying, pointing to “the toll that it can takes on your personal life.”
“This is a demanding position,” he said. “I missed countless sporting events. I missed countless dinners with the family.”
Leahey, who now lives in Cranston, resided in Burrillville for 22 years.
“I’ve made some incredible friends in this community,” he said.
Now 62, the major said he sought the new role, in part, because he wanted to leave Burrillville on a high note, while still at the top of his game.
“I always felt like everything has an expiration date. I didn’t want to be that person who outstayed their welcome,” Leahey said. “I wanted to walk out that door with everybody still thinking that I have a lot to offer.”
Leahey noted his departure will also open opportunities for others in the department, who will likely get promoted.
“I’m extremely proud of this department and I’m beyond honored to have served here for 32 years,” he said. “I can’t think of anything else I would have rather done with my life, and I can’t imagine anywhere other than Burrillville that I’d rather be. That’s what’s going to be difficult to leave – is that camaraderie.”
“In my opinion we are one of the best departments in the state,” he said.
Lynch said such statements are part of what have made the major so good at his job.
“The major has an incredible respect and admiration of the entire department,” said Lynch. “When he talks of the people of this department, you almost think he’s talking about one of his children. He will be missed immensely.”
That respect, Lynch said, has also extended to town residents.
“He knows the people of Burrillville and he cares about them,” Lynch said. “He can tell you generations of families who he’s been involve with, and helped, and provided service to.”
Leahey said that, “Some part of me is always going to be a cop.”
“I’ll miss it, for sure,” Leahey said. “I will think of Burrillville, in many ways as my home.”
“I hope that I developed a reputation as someone who has tried to work very hard to make this a better place.”
Editor’s note: An original version of this article stated Leahey’s last day was Friday, March 21. We apologize for the error.