Does Morristown need more police coverage?

The Morristown police union and police chief seem to think so.

The question arose during budget discussions at the Morristown Select Board meeting Monday, Nov. 18 as the board heard draft budget proposals for its three emergency service departments — fire, ambulance and police. While all three drafts are nearly level-funded, a recent letter submitted by the union for Morristown’s police force asking to expand the department got municipal officials talking about adding at least one more officer to the roster.

“It’s been coming,” Morristown Police Chief Richard Keith said at the meeting.

Keith currently has a 10-person force — a detective, desk officer and eight patrol officers — in addition to an administrative assistant. On Sept. 20, 2019, the union sent a letter to Keith informing him that they had “unanimously agreed,” to express to the town government the need for two additional patrol officers.

Before reviewing Keith’s draft budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year at the meeting, the board met with the chief to talk about adding officers.

“There is a need,” Keith acknowledged, in large part because of the changing nature of police work and the types of calls officers are answering. Morristown is home to myriad social service agencies, and those agencies “draw people from around the region who are experiencing mental health, behavioral and/or substance abuse issues,” the letter stated.

“We’ve been having this conversation for a few years now. They’d told me about it, and put it in writing for me to share with the select board,” Keith said.

“We’ve talked about our town growing, our services growing,” Town Administrator Dan Lindley told the board. “The nature of police work has changed, there are more and more demands on them on a daily basis.”

Officers are spending more and more time on certain calls, assisting local agencies, performing sit-watches and attempting to help people in crisis, which eats up hours at a time and keeps them from answering other calls.

The department is also training two officers to be sergeants, and their added responsibilities will take them away from more traditional police work.

The board and Keith talked about added at least one position, and another one down the road. Keith said it will likely take time to fill a spot given the lengthy wait to get someone accepted and trained at Vermont’s police academy.

His department has a good relationship with agencies like Lamoille County Mental Health, Keith said, and there’s been some on-again, off-again talk of embedding a case worker in the department, but another officer would still be needed.

Morristown officers typically log plenty of overtime, and those numbers go up significantly when an officer is out due to injury or away on training, both of which are common for law enforcement.

The department last expanded over 15 years ago to its current size, but even after that Keith struggled to keep a full staff, as several officers served in the armed forces and severe injuries requiring longterm absences kept the force at less than full strength even when no one was deployed.

“We’ve always struggled to keep a full staff,” Keith said.

“The department has been like this for a long time, I think it’s needed to change before this,” board chair Bob Beeman said.

“It’s been kicked around the edges a bit, but nothing serious,” Lindley said. “There are more needs being placed on the department.” This is the first time the select board has really mulled over the idea of expanding the police department since Lindley came on board in 2008.

Typically, Keith likes to have at least two officers on duty as much as possible, to ensure multiple calls can be covered and that an officer responding to more serious calls has immediate backup. Other local departments often provide backup, and Morristown’s desk officer, Andy Glover, is trained as a full uniformed police officer as well, helping to provide backup on some daytime calls. Still, Keith thinks adding one more officer will help ensure that the town has two police officers on duty, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I believe one would be a good start, if we can budget for it and fill it,” Keith said. He didn’t include money in the budget proposal he presented to the board, but Morristown Finance Director Tina Sweet had rough figures; bringing on a fairly inexperienced officer with a family plan for insurance would cost roughly $100,000.

In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2019, the department paid out $101,029 in overtime.

“When it (overtime) approaches the cost of another officer, it’s time to start looking,” said board member Eric Dodge, a former longtime member of the department.

The Morristown Select Board will continue hearing budget proposals from other departments over the next few months before finalizing a budget proposal in January to present to voters at March Town Meeting.

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