After a third shooting in a month on Valley Street in Springfield, residents and officials said they are growing frustrated about keeping the peace in town. But with a depleted police force and even more officers slated to leave, law enforcement said they’re responding with triage, not new ideas.
Springfield has experienced an unprecedented spate of shootings, with four total since January. Before 2022, five shootings occurred in the past six years, according to Springfield Police Chief Mark Fountain.
Nationwide, gun violence has jumped since the start of the pandemic, though levels remain well below 1990s peaks, according to The New York Times.
Fountain pointed to nationwide trends when asked about what’s driving Springfield’s uptick in shootings. He suggested that a staffing shortage in his department has inhibited the town’s ability to respond.
“If I had a full staff, I would be assigning high-visibility patrols in the affected neighborhoods and holding regular neighborhood meetings to listen to citizens' concerns,” he said.
Currently, Springfield employs five patrol officers, but has funding for 12.
Now, Springfield’s two top cops — Fountain and Lt. Patrick Bell — plan to retire at the end of the year, potentially leaving the department even more depleted.
“The critical staffing shortages, coupled with the lack of qualified applicants, has created heavy burdens in terms of managing an agency with very limited staffing available,” Fountain said of his decision to step away.
The department had hovered between about eight and 10 patrol officers over the last decade, Fountain said. As recently as 2019, Springfield had approximately 10 patrollers. But according to Fountain, retirements, coupled with the pandemic and negative media coverage of law enforcement, has created the current staffing shortage.
Vacancies have led the department to move from 24/7 patrolling to on-call coverage during some hours, Fountain said, adding, “It’s triage every day.”
The Springfield Police Department, which Fountain took over in 2019 after nearly three decades as an officer, has been plagued by problems in recent years.
Earlier this year, a VPR investigation uncovered that Ward Goodenough, Windsor County state’s attorney, had deemed two former Springfield officers potentially not credible.
Asked about the police department, Rep. Kristi Morris, D-Springfield, who is the town’s selectboard chair, said he was grateful for personnel working overtime to fill gaps. He said he hopes that new leadership will bring new energy — if the town can find recruits.
“Law enforcement is the target of a lot of publicity around the country and around the state. We're not blessed with a lot of applications for new officers,” Morris said. A new chief, he suggested, could set the tone for the department, and potentially draw interest from prospective officers.
In the meantime, Springfield hopes to lean on the nearby Chester and Weathersfield police departments. Vermont State Police often provide support during violent incidents, but they recently told Springfield to exhaust all available options before requesting help because of their own staffing shortages.
Morris also said the Springfield Selectboard hopes to pursue policies that would clean up vacant properties around town, attracting more residents and perhaps reducing drug crime.
Drugs are also at issue. Police said they believe the Valley Street shootings are drug-related, and Fountain, the police chief, said the individuals involved in the May 9 shooting are well known to police.
Windsor County, which includes Springfield, has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic, with one of the highest fatal overdose rates in the state. Interstate 91 flanks the county’s eastern border, and police say the highway contributes to local drug use.
That sentiment is shared by leaders in the recovery community, including Michael Johnson, executive director of the Turning Point Recovery Center in Springfield, and Fred Lord, medical director of Connecticut Valley Addiction Recovery in Windsor. Both work with people struggling with substance use disorder in Windsor County and said they believe the interstate — which heads north from New Haven, Connecticut, and passes through Springfield, Massachusetts — acts as a so-called “heroin highway,” bringing drugs into Vermont.
Springfield’s emergency service departments, along with nearby Bellows Falls and Windsor, participate in the Supportive Outreach Project, a collaboration among law enforcement and substance use treatment services. The program seeks to approach substance-use-related crimes from a mental health perspective.
Although Fountain said the initiative has been a success, he noted that the pandemic and staffing issues have prevented Springfield’s department from focusing on community policing projects.
“The drug-related issues have been here for several years now, maybe even going on for a couple of decades. But it's the level of violence that all of a sudden has ramped up,” said Morris, the selectboard chair. “That's very concerning.”
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