SALEM - Sgt. J.T. Panezott, a 23-year city police veteran who's been waging a war against drugs for most of his career, will become Salem's new police chief effective Feb. 1.
"I'm thrilled. I can't wait. We've got a bunch of great guys, and I'm looking forward to working with them," he said.
Panezott, 47, scored the highest on the chief's promotion civil service exam administered Tuesday night to determine who would replace Chief Bob Floor, who's retiring effective Feb. 1. Lt. Dave Casto and Sgt. John Scheets also took the exam.
Floor, city service/safety director Ken Kenst and mayor John Berlin personally delivered the news to Panezott at his Drug Enforcement Administration office in Boardman Friday morning. Floor said he was told in person when he became chief and wanted to do the same for whoever was following him in the job.
When Panezott was told the chief was there to see him, he didn't know Kenst and Berlin were there, too, and still didn't know he got the job until Floor said he handed him the sealed envelope containing his test score and said, "Merry Christmas, Chief." His response was, "Really?"
"I think the Salem Police Department is going to be left in very, very capable hands," Floor said. "I'm optimistic for both J.T. and the police department going into the future."
Panezott said the test was tough, so he was surprised, but said he spent a lot of time studying. When he was growing up playing cops and robbers, he always wanted to be the cop. He really became interested in police work when he went to college.
A Salem High School graduate, he earned a bachelor's degree in law enforcement administration from Youngstown State University in 1987 and went through the Salem Police Academy run by former Chief John Sommers in 1988.
When he was hired by Sommers as a patrolman for the Salem Police Department on July 19, 1989, he was asked what his goals were and one of those goals was to become police chief.
This won't be Panezott's first experience as the leader of a department. He was the first Salem officer assigned to the Columbiana County Drug Task Force when it was formed in January 1992 and served as its director from its inception until Oct. 1, 2000 when he was assigned to the DEA. He made sergeant on July 21, 1995.
Coming from a narcotics crime-fighting background, he said drugs are the main cause of a lot of crime.
"You work on your drug problem, you work on your crime problem," he said.
Panezott said he wants to see someone moved into his full-time DEA position from the Salem Police Department and also a Salem officer full-time with the DTF. He said a lot of people are coming to the Youngstown area from the suburbs to buy heroin. To support that habit, they have to go out and steal.
He said he'll have an open door policy for the public and he's looking forward to seeing people he already knows in the community and meeting the residents he doesn't know. He acknowledged both Scheets and Casto and said they all started around the same time, have known each other a long time and are friends.
Panezott and his wife Lisa have two boys, 10-year-old Justin, and 7-year-old Braden.
Floor said he's glad they know who's replacing him so now they can figure out who's moving where. He'll spend the next month or so showing the new chief all the requirements of the job and the day-to-day business he'll need to know.
Floor discussed the possibility of Panezott getting the job with his boss at the DEA and said the two of them agreed it would be best if J.T. was given the opportunity to name his own replacement if he got the chief's job.
Floor said Salem will continue the participation with the DEA, which has proven financially fruitful for the city which has received seized vehicles for the department and some seized money. Plans had already called for a current sergeant working part-time with the DTF and as a shift supervisor to become full-time with the DTF as a special assignment sergeant. Patrolman Brent Slider scored the highest on a recent sergeants' promotion exam and will be promoted to sergeant and move into the shift supervisor position. New patrolmen will need to be hired, with at least one to replace Floor's spot in the department and one to take Slider's spot.
The current roster, including the chief, has 19 officers, but Floor said that will be increased to 20 since they had created a new special assignment sergeant's post.
"We cannot afford to let the department become any smaller," he said.
Floor said he'll be working on his last day up to 4 p.m. and then the department will belong to Panezott. He offered congratulations to the residents, saying, "You're going to have a very good chief of police hopefully for many years to come."