Some Shelburne residents are concerned about an exodus of officers from the Shelburne Police Department and its ability to safely cover shifts for a department that is supposed to run 24/7 with two officers always on call.
While the Shelburne website currently lists 12 police officers, six are still employed by the town.
Despite the shortage, the police department says it is covering all the shifts, albeit with lots of overtime hours.
Lieutenant Mike Thomas said the department is dealing with the same critical police officer shortage as police departments across the state — and Vermont State Police — face.
“Something is going on. We need to find out why these officers are leaving and going to Hinesburg, going to Williston, going anywhere but here,” Shelburne resident Sean Moran said at the selectboard meeting Nov. 9.
There are barely enough officers to cover hours, Moran said, “so that leaves the hardworking force we have slammed against a wall and exhausted. I’m terrified we’re going to burn them out, too.”
Linda Riell, another resident, said she had heard “murmurings” about the number of police officers who have resigned.
“It’s distressing not to understand why that’s happening. As community members we need to have some more information on that,” Riell said. “We have a leader in the police department — Chief Noble. I can honestly say that in the time he has held that position, unlike his predecessor Chief Warden, who we saw constantly throughout the town, not once have I seen Chief Noble here in Shelburne.”
Multiple attempts to contact Chief Aaron Noble about staffing shortfalls or allegations he’s missing in action proved unsuccessful.
Thomas said the police chief position “has changed incredibly” and much of the chief’s time is focused on “policies, procedures and paperwork.”
In summer 2017, Shelburne negotiated a settlement with Chief James Warden. He retired unexpectedly after a suspension that July, which was revoked. Riell helped organize a rally of about 50 people on the town green protesting Warden’s departure in August 2017.
With over 30 years of experience, Noble succeeded Warden as police chief after serving as deputy chief for seven months.
Shelburne needs the equivalent of eight full-time officers to cover a week’s worth of shifts, Thomas said. Even though the town has budgeted for 12 officers, he said the department has had the equivalent of eight full-time officers for several years.
After this week, when Officer Cole Charbonneau left, the head count is down to six. Officer Dan Eickenberg, who has been on light duty after a health scare several months ago, is cleared to return to full-time patrol work the day after Thanksgiving, the lieutenant said.
Scheduling for those two weeks is “a patchwork” with officers working a lot of overtime, Thomas said.
Even after Eickenberg’s return, there will be just seven officers available to work patrol because the chief’s duties preclude him from filling in there. The department is making up the difference with part-time officers and overtime.
Thomas is working patrol: “If I could walk away from this desk, go out there and do patrol every day, I think I would probably do that.”
Former selectboard member Jerry Storey said he didn’t understand why Shelburne is having trouble hiring and keeping police officers.
Some towns are favored as places to work because of a good working environment and “Shelburne’s one of the favorites,” Storey said, “I mean, it’s a great town to be working in.”
One of Shelburne’s problems is the pay, Thomas said. Officers have left for Williston and Hinesburg because they can make up to $2 an hour more. An officer who left Shelburne for Williston left that job for another dollar in Hinesburg.
“We are one of the lowest paid, if not the lowest paid department, in the state,” Thomas said.
The department is currently in contract negotiations with the town of Shelburne, he said.
Thomas said one of the officers who’s left recently couldn’t handle all the mental health calls to the motels in Shelburne that have been housing homeless people during the pandemic.
This has been a particular problem for his department, Thomas said, because Shelburne “got the bulk” of the people housed in motels.
That number is now down to around 200 but was as high as 260 at the height of the pandemic, of people who were housed at the Days Inn, Harbor Place, Quality Inn, Countryside, T-Bird and North Star motels in Shelburne.
Calls to motels often take up to four hours. A person who appears to be suffering a mental health crisis but is unwilling to go to the hospital can’t be forced to go by the police.
Thomas said only a mental health worker, who generally doesn’t work weekends or nights, must decide if a person is a possible threat to themselves or someone else before an officer can forcibly take them in for a mental health evaluation.
There have been situations where an officer continued to wait and talk with a person in distress until morning when a clinician came on duty, he said.
On Monday, Thomas said he’s completed scheduling into January, but with lots of overtime.
Thomas said the police officer shortage is being felt all over the state. The state police academy website lists over 45 towns and two state, one national and three county agencies looking for officers in Vermont.
Five years ago, Thomas said, an opening in Shelburne would get 10-15 applicants. Now, he said, they search for officers.
COVID has made potential recruits nervous and the defund the police movement has diminished the allure of working as an officer.
“We’ve been meeting with people on a continual basis,” he said.