BRATTLEBORO — A year after racial justice activists called for defunding law enforcement to stop the targeting of Vermonters with marginalized identities, this town’s police department will reduce its daily patrols from three shifts to two, but for a different reason: lack of staff.
The department, budgeted for 27 positions, has only 17 people working — less than two-thirds its full complement. Only 12 people are specifically assigned to patrols — about half the usual number — all because of a lack of qualified applicants.
“The resignation of several officers during the past year has caused the remaining officers to carry a too heavy workload to maintain the old staffing model,” Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote to the Selectboard. “This is resulting in too much overtime and we are wearing out the officers. This is not only unfair and unhealthy for the officers; it also increases risk for them, the town and the community.”
Police, as a result, will work mostly in person but sometimes while on call at home.
“During certain hours of the day or night, police coverage in Brattleboro will be significantly reduced,” interim Chief Mark Carignan wrote in a memo to local leaders. “There are some hours where no proactive patrols will occur and police officers will not be out in the community.”
Police did not share their exact schedules or further specifics but said they will continue to receive all calls and respond to all emergencies.
“Up to now, Brattleboro residents have seen no reduction in service as a result of this struggle,” Carignan wrote. “That said, it would be irresponsible for me to continue to allow officers to be harmed by the scheduling and workload demands placed upon them.”
The interim chief said many staffers were working shifts of up to 16 consecutive hours and have been working on their days off or when sick.
“It is time to recognize that such a service model is not sustainable — officers are becoming burnt out,” Carignan wrote. “The decision to make this change is necessary to maintain the physical and mental health of our officers and to keep the high quality of service that Brattleboro has come to expect from its police department.”
Locals are split on the latter assessment. Just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, residents sought a crackdown on a 411% spike in drug-related vehicle break-ins in a town with an often record number of opioid overdoses.
Then, after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Brattleboro activists called for a municipally sponsored Community Safety Review Committee, which found one of the state’s most politically progressive towns is among “the worst” for disproportionately policing people with marginalized identities.
Police in Vermont’s seventh-largest locality stop Black drivers up to 60% more relative to their small share of the population, for example, even though they are more likely to find contraband on white drivers.
The committee’s 224-page report called for "acknowledgement" and "accountability" rather than large-scale defunding of what was already an understaffed department at 20 employees.
The department lost three more people since then, spurring local leaders to renegotiate its agreement with the police union. The new “on-call” provision “benefits the community by allowing better coverage by better rested officers during all daytime hours and most nighttime hours,” it said.
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