Brattleboro police investigating suspicious death

Investigators from the Brattleboro Police Department gather evidence during a suspicious death investigation at the EconoLodge, on Canal Street, on Friday, July 31, 2020.

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BRATTLEBORO — After experiencing a prolonged shortage in staff, the police department has rearranged scheduling.

“Our department has been relatively short staffed for some time now but over the past six months, maybe year, our staffing has continued to decline as additional officers have resigned and left the department,” Interim Police Chief Mark Carignan said during the Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday. “Currently, our overall strength is at less than two-thirds.”

Brattleboro has 17 officers working in a department authorized for 27, and not all of the officers are assigned to patrol duties, Carignan said. If officers did not offer to work overtime, they have found themselves assigned to overtime shifts.

Carignan said officers expect to have to work beyond their regular shifts. But he called the old shift model unsustainable.

In some cases, officers would clock in for as many as 16 hours. In others, vacations needed to be cancelled or they were denied.

Carignan said despite the staffing struggles, the town has not had an interruption in services as officers continued to meet the community’s needs.

“With that being said, it wouldn’t be responsible of me as their leader to sort of sit idly by as they endure this and as they are harmed by the workload and scheduling demand we place on them,” he said.

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The department will always respond to life-threatening emergencies but there will be some times when no officers will be out patrolling and there could be delays in getting to other calls, Carignan said. He described being optimistic that Brattleboro will continue to be a safe place.

On Tuesday, the Select Board approved a memorandum of understanding between the town and the New England Police Benevolent Association Local #412 that moves the department away from a three-shift system and into one with two shifts. Board members expressed support for the department and sympathized with the stressful situation.

“We are not going into additional detail as to what shifts officers will be working and when,” Carignan told the Reformer. “I can say that the hours of reduced coverage are based on call data — both volume and type — and that during some hours there will be significantly reduced coverage.”

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the schedule change came after several officers left the department and replacements have not been found as quickly as the vacancies occurred.

“This is a phenomenon that is being experienced to varying degrees in police departments across the country,” he said.

Elwell said officers were working too much overtime to keep the old model in place, raising concerns about burnout among employees and overburdening officers. The schedule change is meant to provide proper rest and work/life balance.

While there will be cost savings, Elwell said that was not the motivating factor.