Small-town police coverage seeks upgrade

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MANCHESTER — Would a regional cooperative approach to policing address the inequality of public safety services between Vermont communities that have their own police and those that do not? And how much would taxpayers have to spend in addition to the taxes they send Montpelier for state police operations to improve local public safety services?

How to fix that inequality so every town gets the police protection it needs, and that residents expect, was the topic of a two-hour meeting of the Vermont State Senate's Committee on Government Operations at the Manchester Community Library on Tuesday.

The committee and its members are in the midst of a listening tour of the state, seeking input on issues facing public safety, from training, pay and benefits to improving regional coverage in small, rural towns that cannot afford police departments of their own. They visited Brandon later on Tuesday.

"We are spending $574 million on public safety in the state," committee member State Sen. Alison Clarkson of Woodstock said. "That's about 874 dollars a person. And that gets us, at the moment, this patchwork of non-equal access to public safety."

Some towns in Vermont, such as Manchester, Winhall and Bennington, have their own police force — paid for by property taxpayers on top of the state taxes that pay for state troopers.

And some towns, such as Sunderland, Dorset and Arlington, have no police, and contract with the Bennington County Sheriff for a set number of hours per week — or rely upon the State Police and mutual aid when emergencies arise.

The problems with that dynamic are numerous, audience members told the committee:

- The state police have too many responsibilities, are spread too thinly and need more resources.

- Towns that contract with their county sheriff are getting coverage for only so many hours a week — leaving neighborhoods and businesses unprotected in the meantime. "It doesn't take the criminal element long to figure out how that works," said Michael Hall, Manchester's chief of police.

- Towns that provide officers to other towns for mutual aid are concerned about liability. Manchester Town Manager John O'Keefe said he is concerned about liability when Manchester police officers are called on mutual aid to towns such as Dorset at the request of state police.

- Residents in towns police expect follow-up when they are the victims of property crimes, and grow frustrated if it doesn't materialize. "[Speed enforcement] is not what they want. They want case follow-up," Hall said.

Sunderland resident Leslie Perra agreed. "I want more [police] services and I'd pay for it," she said.

- While some were critical of the state's sheriffs for not doing enough law enforcement work, State Sen. Jeanette K. White of Putney, the committee chairperson, noted that they're compensated just $22 per hour by the state for prisoner transport. "They are a law enforcement agency. We just don't pay them for it," she said.

Londonderry Select Board chairman Paul Gordon said a regional approach, such as the one the Mountain Towns Regional School District took before Act 46 became law, might be a way that towns such as his overcome the expense of training, paying and equipping police.

Londonderry, he said, has for the past two years contracted with Vermont State Police for 25 hours of coverage per week for $86,000. "But that's only one-seventh of the week," he said, and Londonderry's mountain location -- combined with the decision to consolidate the Windham County operations in Westminster -- has made it harder for VSP to serve the town.

'We've got to do things at the state and regional level, and it has to be funded that way," he said. "You've got to look at state areas or county areas to regionalize and not put the burden on local communities," Gordon said.

Reach Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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