BARRE, Vt. — Officials say getting a quick response from police when calling 911 requires a bit of luck.
Some towns and cities in the state have their own police departments so getting a relatively quick response to a situation such as a suspicious person hanging around a residence is the norm. But towns that don’t have their own police elect to either contract with their local sheriff’s department or state police for law enforcement, or they have to depend on state police troopers to show up when called. And towns that do contract for law enforcement generally don’t receive 24/7 coverage because officials say there just aren’t enough law enforcement professionals available and the cost for comprehensive coverage is more than towns can afford.
Chelsea contracts with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement. Select Board member Joan Goodrich said the department is given a budget every year and splits it up into a certain amount of coverage hours per week.
Goodrich said the town would like constant police coverage, but can’t afford to start its own police department. They have to rely on the sheriff’s department for part-time coverage. She said this means if there’s an incident in town when a sheriff’s deputy isn’t on duty, the resident has to call state police and wait for them to show up. And depending on where the trooper assigned to the call is located, she said response can take a while. Even if there is a sheriff’s deputy on duty, she said, there are still issues.
“This has been working so-so. I think some of it has to do with the understanding of folks as to what the sheriff’s department can do versus what state police can do,” she said.
According to officials, a sheriff’s department doesn’t have the resources of state police, such as detectives and specialized units for certain kinds of crimes, so sheriff’s departments typically turn over cases that need investigative tools to state police.
Mary Ann Goulette, the town manager of West Rutland, said her town contracts with the Rutland County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement. The sheriff’s department contracts with neighboring Proctor as well, so the two towns can share the combined 80 contracted hours per week, with a deputy essentially being on-call for one town while patrolling the other. Even so, Goulette said the town’s coverage needs aren’t always met quickly.
“It’s a trade-off. They’re not always on duty. So if there’s an emergency that’s when state police will kick in. If not, just wait until someone at the sheriff’s office is on duty,” she said.
Plainfield has been dealing with its own law enforcement issues. Officials say the opioid epidemic has brought with it an increase in property crimes in town. Plainfield is seeing more burglaries and thefts, and has also been dealing with speeders. It currently contracts with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department for patrolling. On Town Meeting Day, residents will discuss possibly increasing the number of hours the deputies patrol, or starting a contract with state police for law enforcement.
Maj. Rick Hopkins, commander of the Field Force Division of Vermont State Police, said unlike a municipal police department, troopers have a lot of ground to cover. Hopkins said “sometimes it’s just luck of the draw” when it comes to getting a quick response time from state police.
The issue is made worse because of issues such as the opiate crisis, as calls for service for state police have gone up 26 percent over the past 20 years. State police responded to 61,338 calls last year compared to 45,316 calls in 1997.
And while the number of calls has gone up, the number of troopers on the road has remained relatively stagnant. According to state police, they have 327 sworn members. State police added six members in 2009 for its Special Investigation Units, but said they haven’t added any others since the 1990s.
Hopkins said contrary to popular belief, troopers don’t sit at their assigned barracks waiting for calls — they are out patrolling assigned areas. He said when a call comes in, a trooper might be on the far end of his or her patrol area and have to drive through four towns to get to the call. Hopkins said the opposite could also be true when someone calls 911 for police service and a trooper is close by.
“So the troopers are dispersed already. They’re not coming from as far away as folks might think. But sometimes they are coming from a couple towns away or the other side of your town. If you live on one extreme edge of your town and the trooper is on the other, it’s going to take a while for them to get there. That is the nature of rural law enforcement, but it’s not as bad as folks might think,” he said.
Hopkins said troopers respond to calls based on priority. He said cases where someone may be in danger — a car crash or a domestic assault — go to the top of the list while crimes like a burglary in progress will have to wait if a trooper is responding to an assault and there’s no other trooper available.
Hopkins said when a life-threatening situation is called in and a trooper is far away from the scene, state police will reach out to other law enforcement agencies in the area, including sheriff’s departments, Fish & Wildlife game wardens and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“We will have someone that’s closer stabilize the situation until we get there,” he said.
Hopkins said this kind of response is more common in the southern part of the state. While the Route 7 and Interstate 91 corridors are well populated, the space in between is pretty empty and there aren’t many troopers there.
Hopkins said those who live “in the middle of nowhere” in the state and are concerned about how long it takes for police to show up to an incident should know that coverage is being taken care of.
“I would tell them that we utilize all resources: state, local, county, even federal in some cases. There are people in your communities or close by to your communities who will respond and who will make sure people stay safe. We will use all resources at our disposal to ensure that,” he said.
Information from: The Times Argus, http://www.timesargus.com/