PUTNEY — There was a full house Thursday night for a discussion on community policing, which included concerned town officials, law enforcement officers, a state representative and several residents.
After Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark rescinded Putney's 40 hour community policing contract and then offered half of the hours to town this July, town officials felt it would be best to gauge resident's policing wants and needs in moving forward. On Thursday evening, chairman Joshua Laughlin and Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard led the discussion for those at the meeting, providing a brief history of Putney's law enforcement and what they were looking to accomplish.
According to Stoddard, Putney has contracted with the Windham County Sheriff Office since 1968, sometimes at between 25 and 50 hours of service per week. Most recently, this past fall, Clark offered Putney a year-long 40-hour contract for $57,000, but after he rescinded it, he extended 20 hours of service from multiple deputies per week, priced at $49 per hour, or approximately $52,000 for a year contract at half the hours. The town accepted a six-month contract at about $26,000 and is now looking for direction from residents on where to go next when the contract runs out in December. The question is whether the town will continue with the sheriff, explore a contract with the Vermont State Police, utilize a constable or build its own police station under the direction of the municipality.
Toward the end of the discussion on Thursday evening, a straw pole was suggested by one man in the audience, but several residents stated they felt there were not enough statistics around issues of crime in order for them to make an informed unofficial "vote" that evening. Stoddard brought up the "rash" of break-ins that have occurred in recent months throughout town, including one at the Central School earlier this month. Putney Safety Committee member Lawrence O'Neil stated that in his findings, there were two burglaries reported from 2015, which some residents felt was inaccurate or sounded low.
Stoddard stated she will work to have more communication about burglaries and crime with VSP and WCSO as she gets some hard numbers to present to the community.
A few major differences between the structures of VSP and WCSO have been noted by Laughlin or others who have attended Select Board meetings that included discussions around this topic. Criminal enforcement requires a lot of time, according to a previous statement by Robert Lakin, captain of the Windham County Sheriff's Office, and if there is a 911 call and a deputy is in town, the Sheriff's Office is responsible for that investigation. However, if a crime occurs and the WCSO has reached its maximum of 20 hours of service per week, the matter will be handed off to the VSP, according to Laughlin. Regardless of whether or not the VSP is to be contracted for community policing, VSP troopers are the primary responders for matters around criminal activity or life saving issues.
As for Billy Straus, he said he would like to see Putney's main WCSO deputy, Josh Parro, spend more time, a suggested four hours per week, with face-to-face interaction. Straus suggested communicating with townspeople at the general store, which he feels would be a good way for deputies to hear the needs of the community and, in turn, a way for the deputy to communicate to the community what they may want to look out for.
"I want to prevent burglaries," Straus said.
Straus expanded that he feels community policing should work toward "prevention rather than just response."
Townspeople and officials continued to discuss ways to create some sort of public forum, document or system where residents could stay informed about crime issues in the area. One individual suggested something along the lines of a "neighborhood watch."
During the meeting, most of the conversation was weighted toward whether to pursue an option of community policing with the WCSO or the Vermont State Police. The discussion around a constable or police station was limited, but it was noted that in the 1960s, the WCSO had suggested that the town build its own police station, but under its direction. The proposal of building a police department in Putney today would be under the direction of the municipality.
Laughlin said that the constable and Puntey police department options seem less "tempting."
One of the other matters brought up was "timeliness." Given the recent school break-in, PCS Principal Herve Pelletier noted that he found out about the Aug. 13 break-in on the morning of Aug. 15 and the VSP investigator assigned to the case was not on duty until Aug. 17, so action was delayed. Laughlin noted that this is often an issue and reality for small rural towns because if a matter is not life-threatening, sometimes an issue is delayed, whether it be WCSO or VSP.
"What does exceptional policing look like?" Laughlin said is the question he would like to be considered in this discussion in the coming months.
Some residents suggested the answer could be found by modeling the work after that of Corporal Melissa Evans of the WCSO, who was the former deputy of Putney for six years until this past winter. Others asked if it was an option to get Evans reassigned to Putney. Laughlin confirmed it is at the Sheriff's discretion, and at this point the answer has been "No."
Further discussion around community policing will occur sometime in September. Stoddard said perhaps there will be a "straw poll" in September to gage which option residents want to pursue at this time. She noted she would also like to have a meeting where law enforcement officer can advise the community ways in which they can be safer.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275