By Guy Page
A slew of resignations in the past year have left the remaining Brattleboro cops exhausted, the town’s police chief told selectboard members. As a result, patrol coverage will drop from three shifts to two.
During unspecified hours, there will be no police officers on patrol, Interim Police Chief Capt. Mark Carignan said in a May 25 note to the selectboard (see pg. 48). Instead, police officers will be on-call. Also, some non-emergency calls that once would have been responded to in person will be handled over the phone, he said.
The Brattleboro Police Department is now staffed at 17 sworn officers, 10 short of the full complement of 27. The patrol division is staffed at 12 of the full complement of 21, or just over half-strength at 57%.
Officers have been working double shifts and on their days off. Vacations are sometimes denied or cancelled. Officers are reluctant to call in sick knowing another already heavily-burdened officer will be required to cover for them. Officers’ time off is so limited that often they must choose between spending time with family or sleeping.
“It is time to recognize that such a service model is not sustainable,” Carignan said. “Officers are becoming burnt out.”
Neither Carignan nor Town Manager Peter Elwell – who also will be leaving his position – explain in published documents why so many officers have resigned. As Gov. Phil Scott and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling have noted, Vermont has a widespread skilled labor shortage. Law enforcement is no exception. However, Brattleboro police faces challenges that are perhaps more severe in their Windham County town than in most other parts of the state:
The state’s worst opioid crisis. In 2018-19, Windham County had more total opioid deaths than any county in Vermont – even more than populous, urban Chittenden County. Brattleboro, the urban center of Windham County, is a popular place of business for drug dealers from Springfield, MA, New York, or Hartford CT. There has also been a 411% increase in drug-related vehicle break-ins.
An active ‘defund the police’ movement. Brattleboro has a long history as a politically progressive area. A ‘Back the Blue’ flag at the Brattleboro Fire Department was ordered taken down by Elwell after complaints of racial insensitivity.
In June, a Defund the Police Occupation occupied the Brattleboro Common. Many said they supported abolishing the police department and the state’s prisons.
Although the selectboard eventually chose by a 3-2 vote to not defund the police, vowing instead to study the problem of systemic racism in Brattleboro’s criminal justice system, opposition to police funding remained strong. The only police training the town wanted to increase in 2021 – racial sensitivity training for police – is pending review by marginalized communities.
The ‘defund the police’ movement however does not appear to be the main driver in the Brattleboro resignations, Sean McArdle, spokesperson for the New England Police Benevolent Association, told Vermont Daily today. NEPBA Local #412 is the union for the Brattleboro Police Department.
“One of ’em left to become a teacher. Another left because they no longer wanted to be a police officer,” McArdle said. “Another left to join another police department for more money.”
However, McArdle did not discount current anti-police sentiment as a general motivation to leave policing.
“I think that has an impact on the police industry as a whole,” he said. “I wouldn’t just narrow it down to Brattleboro. You see it around the state and New England – anyone with 20 years is looking to get out. The public should know that of the millions of public interactions that happen, the number of bad events that do happen is miniscule.”
Vermont faces a particular police manpower problem because its sole training facility, the Vermont State Police Academy, has a limited number of open slots and just two training sessions a year. Other states have more robust training programs. Also, in the current high-demand work environment, police departments that pay less are likely to be raided by those that pay more.