Bellows Falls police roles questioned

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BELLOWS FALLS — Can Bellows Falls afford a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week police department?

That question was posed last week by Bellows Falls Village Trustee Jonathan Wright, who said it might be time to review the mission of the police department.

Not even the Vermont State Police has 24/7 coverage, he pointed out.

There are only 3,000 people living in Bellows Falls, he said, and the village is just over a square mile in size.

"The state police don't, the sheriffs don't" have 24-hours-a-day coverage, seven days a week, he said.

In 2019 to date, the police department has made 1,235 traffic stops, issued 371 parking tickets and 157 arrests, according to the report compiled by Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison. In 2018, there were 1,518 traffic stops, 568 parking tickets and 176 arrests.

In 2017, there were 977 traffic stops, 510 parking tickets and 182 arrests.

Trustee James McAuliffe noted that only 10 percent of the police department's calls were what he called "serious issues," with the rest just "stuff."

Of the arrests, there were only 13 arrests for drugs in 2018, and none this year, the report showed. There were only 17 drug arrests in 2017, Trustee Gary Lique pointed out.

The village police officers have racked up serious and expensive overtime in the past couple of months largely due to under staffing, said Harrison, who made a detailed report to the village trustees last week. Currently, there are seven officers in the department. The department is down two officers and the current staff has to fill in, she said. One recent week, police officers had 50 hours of overtime, but Harrison said usually the overtime is between 42 to 45 hours of overtime a week.

Despite the high overtime, Harrison said not having to pay the two officers — and their benefits — helps keep the village finances in balance.

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Much of the staffing requirements of the police department are dictated by the union contract the police department has with the village, Harrison and Village President Deborah Wright said. The requirement, for instance, that two police officers be on duty at all times is part of the union contract.

The union contract expires at the end of June 2020, and negotiations will probably start this year, Harrison said.

Lake said they are on the verge of filling at least one of the police department's vacancies, which would significantly reduce the overtime.

Resident Paul Reis said he doesn't think Bellows Falls needs two officers on duty at all times. "We don't need two officers per shift. The chief can fill in," said Reis.

Reis said that while Lake routinely says the department has about 4,000 calls in a year, a recent analysis shows there were only about 1,000 "real calls" and only a fraction of those were actual arrests.

And Reis said it is "absolutely insane" for the village department to have four cruisers.

The discussion came up during a regular trustees' meeting, and earlier in the Sept. 10 meeting, two Bellows Falls residents who live on Granger Street spoke about the lack of action by the police department regarding their complaints of drug dealing by a neighbor. One of the residents said he "gave up" his house on Granger Street because of the rampant drug dealing.

He also said that people would park on the sidewalk and police ignored his complaints. "Will the police do anything? No," he said.

Deb Wright, the village president, said she talked to Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake about the Granger Street problem and she felt it was now being addressed.

But the resident said the problems have been going on for more than five years, including helmetless riders on ATVs on the small street.

Deb Wright said it is a "multi-level problem," but one that "will be addressed."

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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