Lawmakers Evaluate Rural Police Coverage

Communities / Sep. 28, 2017 9:13am EDT

By Cyrus Ready-Campbell
VtDigger.org

The Senate Committee on Government Operations is asking residents for ideas about how to improve Vermont’s law enforcement system.

Lawmakers launched a statewide review of police services last week. A session in White River Junction was the second in a series of public hearings the committee will hold through November 7. The committee will use information from the hearings to draft legislation.

The next hearing will be held in Manchester on Tuesday, Sept. 26.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham and chair of the Government Operations Committee, said the committee wants to get a better sense of how well localities are covered by local, county and state law enforcement agencies. In addition, lawmakers want to know how police forces share costs and responsibilities.

White said the committee began a review of local access to police after a report was issued by the State Auditor in January showing that Vermont spends $574 million a year on public safety.

Lawmakers are concerned about access to police services in relationship to the overall cost of law enforcement borne by local taxpayers. Some communities, are spending very little on police coverage. Others are investing in local police departments.

“There are some basic questions that need to be answered by citizens,” White says. “What does the public expect or mean by ‘public safety’? Who is responsible for that public safety? Who should bear the cost?”

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, a member of the committee, said she also was unclear about what Vermonters expect of law enforcement.

“I’m pretty clear on what people’s expectations are about fire,” Clarkson said, “because we have fire departments in every town.”

Clarkson said “when something goes wrong, [residents] expect someone to be there right away,” even if they’re “not necessarily paying for that.”

Joan Goodrich, chair of the selectboard in Chelsea, said her town’s contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is “not very satisfactory.”

“It’s very difficult to get them to come to a call if it’s not an emergency,” Goodrich said. “We had one weekend where someone called the sheriff’s department about an issue and the sheriff’s department gave out all the numbers of the selectboard members.”

Chelsea has looked into hiring a constable, but the cost would be prohibitive for the town of 1,200 people, Goodrich says. The town allocates $12,500 or $13,000 per year for the sheriff’s contract, or a little more than 300 total hours at $42 per hour.

David Cahill, Windsor County state’s attorney, said many communities are not spending enough on law enforcement.

“The problem is—I don’t want to pick on Chelsea, but it was the only town that gave us numbers—the expectation of people there is that they’re gonna pay $10 per person for their police contract,” Cahill said.

Public expectations for police coverage have grown and it’s time to “reset our expectations” about how much law enforcement costs, Cahill said.

“The resources issue is very much solvable,” Cahill said. “Look at it on a scale compared to education. Education, we’re talking about—depending on your town— some four to five-digit number per person to educate the kids in that town.”

In contrast, Cahill said, “Any model of policing that we’re discussing is talking about a levy that’s probably three digits per person per town to provide full service police coverage.”

When law enforcement is underfunded, too much is asked of officers who have limited coverage hours, the state’s attorney said.

The current expectations towns have about how much they’re willing to pay are such, Cahill said, that “towns in rural areas, even if they pool (their services into a shared force), are going to be bumping up against an inability to provide specialized law enforcement services.”

“If we do an amateur hour investigation,” Cahill said, “it has implications not only for the victim but also for people who could be falsely accused.”

Representatives from several police departments and the Vermont State Police all shared concerns with the committee about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining new officers.

Roger Farmer, station commander of the Royalton barracks, said that the state police created a recruitment department last year to attract new officers.

Farmer said the recruitment team has had moderate success, but keeping the force numbers up “is going to be an ongoing battle.”

“Within the four or five years, something like one-third of the department is going to be retiring,” Farmer said.

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland and vice chair of the committee, said law enforcement’s workforce problems sounded similar to those in other sectors in Vermont.

“We’re losing 25-45-year-old people— the workforce, basically,” Collamore said.

“You can have all the money you want, but if there aren’t available people to take those positions, you’ve got another issue,” Collamore said.

Robbie Blish, Woodstock chief of police, said that Vermont’s law enforcement salaries are not nationally competitive.

The average in Vermont, Blish said, is around $46,000 a year compared to a national average of $62,000. Blish added that Vermont’s police retirement packages are “not great either.”

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