Vermont needs to fish or cut bait on police coverage. The days are long gone when the state’s biggest menace was speeding tourists.
If you need any evidence of that, look at last week’s newspaper. A woman who lives in Morrisville was charged with running a drug distribution network involving heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone for a period of years, and a federal magistrate kept her in jail because she has threatened to kill the witnesses in her case.
The case was cracked through cooperation among the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Morristown and Stowe police departments, and the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department, where Sheriff Roger Marcoux is a former undercover drug officer.
We’re fortunate to have the local professionals in the Morristown, Stowe and sheriff’s departments, but that’s a rarity in Vermont. Of the 251 cities and towns in Vermont, 201 have no police coverage of their own.
Last year, Stowe’s 22 full- and part-time police officers responded to 5,274 incidents, nearly half of them traffic stops, but the others included burglary, fraud, embezzlement, drunken driving and domestic violence. Morristown’s 10 officers responded to 4,229 incidents; the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department — which employs 40 to 45 people and “could use more,” Marcoux says — logged 6,282 incidents, though a single incident can result in weeks of investigative work.
Together, those three departments responded to 15,785 incidents. In the 201 Vermont communities with no local police, how many crimes do you suppose went unreported and were never investigated?
That police coverage isn’t cheap. Stowe’s police budget is about $1.6 million and Morristown’s $1.2 million; the sheriff’s department patrol budget is about $1.1 million, with Johnson, Hyde Park and Wolcott paying extra to have full-time police coverage. Each of the three would have a hard time financing a police department on their own.
Waterbury had a village police department until December, when the village government began shutting down — tired of paying extra property taxes largely for the police department. That put the policing question in the hands of the town government, and voters decided last month to hire the Vermont State Police to supply two full-time troopers to police Waterbury. The cost: $365,000 a year. In the long run, Waterbury — whose nearly 5,000 residents make it similar in size to Stowe and Morristown — is likely to start its own police force, but the state police setup provides a nice transition.
Unless the Legislature passes a bill, S.273, that flat-out bans contracts between the state police and municipalities.
The ban would likely block the Waterbury plan, since no contract exists yet. Cambridge, which contracts with state police for extra patrols for up to 70 hours per month, could keep that coverage until the contract expired, the bill says, but it couldn’t be renewed.
It appears the ban was proposed to preserve the status quo while a state-level Law Enforcement Advisory Board — whose 14 members, drawn from every organization that has a stake in the criminal justice system, will surely be an unwieldy group — develops “a comprehensive approach to providing the best services to Vermonters, given monies available.”
Which would have been great if this were 1950, but 21st-century crimes and the opioid crisis scream out for decent police coverage across the state, and the Vermont State Police — a topnotch force — is being severely stretched to keep up with the pace of events.
What should 21st-century policing look like in Vermont?
The best approach is a local police department, where officers know the community and not much gets past them. But that’s expensive; a first-rate local department is probably impractical for communities with fewer than 5,000 residents. And fewer than 30 Vermont communities have 5,000 residents or more.
Regional arrangements are possible through the sheriff’s departments in Vermont’s 14 counties, but many are simply not equipped to do what the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department can do — and there’s no requirement that they provide those police services.
That leaves the state police. Now, towns without police coverage have to depend on the state police, and the nearest trooper could be miles away when an emergency occurs. Arrangements like Waterbury’s — where the community pays all the costs of having two troopers on duty a total of 80 hours per week — would seem smart. The state police would broaden its reach across the state, thus boosting crime-fighting efforts everywhere, and the state government wouldn’t have to pay an extra dime.
Here’s a question: Wouldn’t it make sense for the state police to provide that police coverage on an interim basis while the Law Enforcement Advisory Board gets organized, takes stock, ponders the future, argues about the best approach, and then offers some timid idea that the Legislature will probably refuse to finance?
Otherwise, criminals will continue to enjoy a nearly open season in the vast majority of Vermont communities.