Questions remain for Bellows Falls Police

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BELLOWS FALLS — The future of the Bellows Falls Police Department is far from settled, with some Bellows Falls Village Trustees saying they want to explore options, including reducing its size, or contracting with another law enforcement agency.

There are several issues affecting the Police Department, the most recent of which was a request by Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver to have the Vermont State Police investigate the Bellows Falls department. Shriver's complaint from last July alleged that a Bellows Falls Police officer had tipped off someone who was the target of a search warrant.

During a meeting of the Village Board of Trustees on Tuesday, Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison reported that the Vermont Attorney General's Office had on Monday concluded that there was "no credible evidence" that Detective Sgt. Mario Checchi had misused his office in tipping off the subject of a search warrant.

While that investigation no longer looms over the department, there are other issues that need to be addressed. Staffing problems remain, as does the search for a new police chief, Harrison said. She said the Police Department had a standing advertisement for police officers at the Vermont Police Academy.

Trustee James McAuliffe, who attended the meeting via phone from his Florida vacation, said he wanted to start talking about reducing the size of the department before the trustees start the 2020-21 budget process in anticipation of the annual village meeting in May.

"I did ask to have the police on the agenda," said McAuliffe, who said he wanted to know "what the board had in mind for next year's budget."

"I'm looking for a reduction," said McAuliffe, who said any reduction would "obviously affect the manpower, the people power."

The Police Department budget makes up the vast majority of the annual village budget.

McAuliffe urged his fellow board members to give Harrison "some ideas" about the Police Department "or what kind of coverage we want."

The department is currently operating under an acting police chief; Sgt. David Bemis was appointed to be acting chief last week. Chief Ron Lake, who has been on extended medical leave since last fall, is retiring as of March 1. And for most of the past year, the department has been down two officers, which requires the remaining police officers to work substantial overtime to cover all the shifts.

Trustee Stefan Golec said his position on the department had been erroneously reported in Tuesday's Reformer, which stated he was in favor of shutting down the department. In truth, Golec said, he was interested in examining options, including contracting with the Windham County Sheriff's Department since the village already uses the sheriff's department for off-hours dispatch services.

"Our job is to look at all the options," he said. "The police department we have is doing a diligent job," he said.

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Village President Deborah Wright said that according to the police union contract, unionized labor cannot be replaced with non-union labor.

Harrison said she wanted to hire some part-time officers to supplement the existing full-time officers.

"Part-time people can fill the gaps," she said.

And three citizens, including a Rockingham Select Board member who lives in the village, had both concerns and praise for the department.

Rockingham Select Board member Gaetano Putignano said he had been told by a member of the police department that they were too understaffed to respond to one of his requests. He said he was told "things are not getting done ... because they don't have the staff."

"When are they going to have the staff?" he asked. He also urged Harrison to include village residents on the chief search committee, as well as holding a public hearing as things got closer to a decision. Ideally, he said, the next chief would serve Bellows Falls for the next 15 to 20 years, he said.

A Bellows Falls business owner, Sharon Boccelli, spoke in favor of the police department, while acknowledging it had "problems."

"Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater," she said.

Putignano also asked if Officer Josh Paulette, who was suspended two weeks ago for what Harrison said was "non disciplinary" issues, had been reinstated yet. The answer from Harrison was no.

Bemis said it's no secret that the department is short-staffed. "We are trying to do everything," he said. "We are doing what we can do. We will respond to anything we need to."

And Wade Masure urged the trustees to to explore alternatives to the existing department, such as look into contracting with the Windham County Sheriff's Department to provide police coverage to see if it's cheaper than the current department.

The current department is unionized, and its three-year union contract expires at the end of June.

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


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