Neal Maciel – a life in law enforcement

Neal Maciel as a cub cop in Tisbury, back in the mid-1970s. — File photo by Photoc courtesy of Neal Maciel

The work on the trim of his Tisbury home will be done now, the skylight completed, and most likely a couple of books on history will be read. He has time.

Three weeks ago on Friday, after 35 years in law enforcement on the Island, Sgt. Neal Maciel, former commander of the State Police, headquartered in Oak Bluffs, began his retirement — very quietly and without ceremony.

“It’s not a job, it’s a way of life,” Sgt. Maciel says. “So it’s still a little strange.” He pauses, then adds, “a huge change — absolutely.”

It’s the weekend, slow-moving and relaxed, and Marilyn Maciel, his wife of 21 years, is trying to keep a hyperactive white cotton ball with a wagging tail named Sadie out of trouble, while her husband talks about the work he’s loved, talks about all the mornings he wished he could stay in bed, and how now that he can, finds he’s wide awake at 6:30 am, talks about being 19 and answering an ad in the paper for summer position as a traffic officer, and getting his hair cut by Michael Colaneri at Bert’s Barbershop to prepare for the interview. He talks about dealing with people he knows, “everything from helping people out with their car to going to their homes to deliver bad news.”

Neal Maciel is an Islander through and through — big family, long history, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Class of ’73. His grandparents were caretakers for Seven Gates Farm (grandmother, Rose Silva was born in Chilmark). His father, James Maciel, operated a plumbing business for 45 years, now run by brother Corly. The couple’s Tisbury home was built by Sgt. Maciel, his father, and Ruben Silvia. His neighbors are his high school classmates Tom Bardwell and John Schilling, Tisbury Fire Chief. He’s memorized the rhythm of the Island, knows its nooks and crannies, its beauty and brutality.

“Here, you may lock somebody up the night before,” Sgt. Maciel says, “and run into them at the post office or the grocery store, or when you’re out having dinner with your family.”

It was 1975, Memorial Day Weekend. A teenage Neal Maciel, the only applicant for the job of traffic officer, was hired to work with his cousin, Tisbury police chief Raymond Maciel.

“I was 19, and the chief gave me one of his older guns, a little belt pouch and a clip with eight bullets,” Sgt. Maciel recalls, noting that things now are not as relaxed. “He said, ‘Go up on Main Street and help people get out of their parking spots. Just walk up and down the street and help people out.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God. They gave me a gun. I’ve never fired a revolver in my life. There are three banks up on Main Street, — what if there’s a bank robbery? What the hell am I going to do?'”

It was Sgt. Maciel’s decision to leave his job as commander (a position, not a rank) of the State Police here. Originally, he’d planned on staying another two years, but to advance in the State Police ranks he would have been required to leave the Island, “and this is my home, it’s always been my home.”

In November, Sgt. Maciel will challenge Sheriff Mike McCormack for the position of Dukes County Sheriff.

But the choice was not easily decided. “It’s been a real rollercoaster ride,” he says. “I’ve been driving Marilyn crazy.” She’s listening to him and smiles.

Ms. Maciel came from Maine to spend a summer working at her family’s restaurant, the Ocean View in Oak Bluffs, but met her husband and stayed. The two first met when he waved her over. She says, “He wanted to know who the little blond in the Firebird was.”

He says, “She had an expired inspection sticker.”

As laid-back and mellow as Sgt. Maciel might seem — (“I’ve always told the people who work for me that it’s easier to ratchet up your attitude than it is to bring it down”) — he is fiercely passionate about many things.

His life changed after a friend’s tragic accident: “I’ll tell you what happened. I had a good group of friends and we’d go out and, you know, hit the nightlife. One night we were out all together and left Circuit Avenue, decided to go to Vineyard Haven, and left in a caravan of five or six cars. Louie Freitas decided he’d beat us there and wound up in a fatal accident. That stayed with me. Something clicked, and I said, ‘I’ve got to change directions right away or I’ll end up like that’… So one day, I’m one of the guys that was being chased, and the next day I’m the one doing the chasing.”

He adds, “I don’t know where I’d be today, or if I’d even be alive today, if I didn’t choose this career. Absolutely.”

But so much of how he responds is an expression of his nature: “I try to treat everybody the way I want to be treated,” he says. “That’s the way I was taught growing up and that’s the way I try and come across to people… I’m approachable.”

Laura Marshard, assistant district attorney assigned to the Dukes County courthouse, has worked closely with Sgt. Maciel. She describes him as uncommon in his dedication to the job. “There was no 8 to 4 with Neal,” she says. “He was just available day or night, 24/7, to be of assistance to the community, to be of assistance to other departments, and the district attorney’s office.

“What always struck me about Neal is that he was not just out to nail somebody and get a conviction. Sometimes, you get a person who has just fallen upon financial or emotional hard times that needs a little compassion or help, and the circumstances they found themselves in are an aberration. And he has repeatedly come to me over the years to look at the whole picture and find a just resolution.”

“I think that half of police work is being able to listen,” Sgt. Maciel says. “You may not be able to help someone out in their situation, but at least if you give them some time to express themselves and you show them you care and that you’re listening, it goes a long way to defusing a lot of the situation and helping them out.

“You feel that you’re doing this for a reason, for a purpose. When you’re able to help someone out, or put a case together and get it through the court system, and solve situations and stop people from bringing more poison here to the Island — at least slow it down — it’s a good thing.”

Sgt. Maciel makes it a point to express appreciation to Raymond Maciel (“I’d see him dealing with people, how calm and focused he was”), Oak Bluffs police chief Peter Williamson, (“he had your back”), and Red Kennedy at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

And yes, he says his career in law enforcement helped him become the person he always wanted to be. “It’s been a good life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”