Our Opinion: Bellows Falls police future should be weighed carefully

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There's been quite a bit of drama surrounding the Bellows Falls Police Department, to the point where some are questioning if the village even needs a police department.

The most recent controversy involves an investigation into allegations that one of the officers tipped off someone who was the target of a search warrant. Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver filed a complaint against the police department on July 31, 2019, asking for an investigation into possible misconduct. We were relieved to hear that the Vermont Attorney General's office said it reviewed the investigation conducted by the Vermont State Police and found "no credible evidence" that any laws were violated.

Local officials, who didn't know about the investigation until recently, expressed relief that the issue has been resolved.

Shriver herself echoed those sentiments: "I am pleased to hear the matter is resolved and hope the department can move forward."

Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done. Besides Shriver's complaint, the police department is going through a number of other significant changes and challenges. For starters, the department's leadership is in transition as 14-year Chief Ron Lake, who has been on extended sick and family leave for months, plans on retiring on March 1. Last week, Sgt. David Bemis, an 18-year veteran of the department, was named acting chief, replacing Fire Chief Shaun McGinnis, who had been acting chief since November when Lake didn't come back from vacation.

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What's more, the department has been seriously understaffed for about a year, requiring officers to work substantial overtime to cover all the shifts.

All of this upheaval and uncertainty could have a serious negative effect on staff morale, not to mention response time and a hit to the department's budget, which makes up the vast majority of the annual village budget.

It's enough to get some residents and village trustees talking about exploring other options, including reducing the size of the department or contracting with another law enforcement agency, such as the Windham County Sheriff's Office since the village already uses the sheriff's department for off-hours dispatch services.

Trustee James McAuliffe said he wants to start that discussion before the trustees begin the 2020-21 budget process in anticipation of the annual village meeting in May. The village also needs to consider that the three-year union contract representing police officers expires on June 30, and the contract requires a 90-day notice if the village won't renew it.

That doesn't leave much time to thoroughly research different alternatives, do a complete cost analysis, weigh the pros and cons of each option and give the community an opportunity to speak on the matter before a final decision is made.

The question village officials and residents need to ask is, would it be better to fast track this process through and risk making a bad situation worse, or take more time to vet out each alternative and make an informed decision?


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