Grant pays for new Winhall police officer

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WINHALL — Another officer is coming to town thanks to federal grant funds aimed at helping rural police departments.

"We get busy on weekends during the ski season," Winhall Police Lt. Derrick Tienken said. "We also cover Stratton, and they've become a year-round destination because of activities hosted there throughout the year, which has definitely increased our call volume."

Five rural Vermont law enforcement agencies will receive about $600,000 to help hire new officers, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced Nov. 20.

"These funds are critical to small law enforcement agencies that would otherwise find it too costly to bring a new officer on board," Leahy said in a press release. "With the increase in opioid abuse and its inherent problems, our law enforcement agencies and officers are stretched to their limits. This is the type of federal spending that just makes common sense."

Police in Winhall have seen an uptick in arrests and incidents related to heroin and other drugs, Tienken said. But he does not see opioids as the sole issue.

The grant funding was sought in Winhall mainly because of impaired driving on roadways in the department's jurisdiction.

Tienken thinks the area sees a lot more of it than other places. He said drunk or drugged driving made up 45 percent of arrests in 2014, 42 percent in 2015, 35 percent in 2016, and 47 percent at about halfway through this year when he submitted the grant application.

"People come here to have a good time and there's a lack of public transportation you might see in larger towns or cities," he said. "Very few shuttles, zero that run late enough to get on as the bars close."

Officers in Winhall are trained for drug recognition and impaired driving enforcement. Tienken said most of the time, only one officer is on duty but the new position will allow the department to do more aggressive enforcement for driving under the influence.

The effort is part of the U.S. Department of Justice COPS Hiring Program, which was signed into law in 1994. It is said to have helped with the hiring of more than 130,000 law enforcement officers throughout the country.

The funding provides departments with up to 75 percent of the entry-level salaries and benefits of full-time officers over three years. A 25 percent local match is required.

"The program covers a large portion of the costs that communities face when adding officers to their ranks, thereby supporting the goals of community policing," the press release from Leahy's office says. "Each of the five Vermont grants will allow the respective departments to hire one new officer."

The Hardwick Police Department and sheriff's departments in Franklin, Orange and Essex counties also received grants for the fiscal year 2017. Tienken said last year's grants went to urban departments. Burlington was one of them.

Winhall has received funds through the program before.

"I think this is our third time going through the universal hiring program," said Winhall Police Chief Jeffery Whitesell, who expects to start the search for an officer immediately.

There is also a commitment to keep funding the position an additional year after the three-year period is over, he said.

"We suspect that regardless, we'll have some attrition," Whitesell said. "This gives us an opportunity to get someone's foot through the door."

The grants help with the "heavy costs" associated with hiring police officers, Whitesell said. His department has five officers now, not including him.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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