Windsor Towns Consider Shared Police Force
05/23/11 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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Officials say the policing needs of Vermont towns are changing.
VPR's Susan Keese has more.
(Keese) Ralph Johnson has spent 43 years as West Windsor's town constable. When he started out, the job was more about chasing stray dogs than pursuing criminals and solving crimes.
Now when he's called out, it's often more serious.
(Johnson) "We started getting B and E's when they put the interstate up through here. More domestics, motor vehicle accidents, had one homicide, a kidnapping. I caught people coming out of houses when they broke in several times."
(Keese) Johnson who is 83, uses his own car on the job. In a pinch he can call on the state police for backup, or the Windsor County Sheriff, or the town of Windsor's small police department.
But he says the response time varies, from right away to as long as an hour.
(Johnson) "All depends on the time of day and night and where the troopers are."
(Keese) Fewer Vermont towns these days use their constables as their chief law enforcement officer. But for those that do, the rules are changing.
A law that goes into effect a year from now requires hundreds of hours of Police Academy training for town constables with police powers.
When that happens, Johnson says he'll retire. That leaves West Windsor with a problem.
Glenn Seward is the tiny town's select board chairman.
(Seward) "I mean we've been very lucky over the past many years with the cost of Ralph's services. It's unlikely that we'll see that again."
(Keese) It was one of Seward's colleagues on the board who suggested forming a shared police department with neighboring small towns.
(Seward) "I sent some letters out to surrounding towns to test the waters and there was a very favorable response."
(Keese) Tom Kennedy of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission agreed to help organize a discussion of the idea. The first discussion was in April with the towns of Windsor, Weathersfield, Hartland and West Windsor at the table.
(Kennedy) "Towns are finding it harder and harder to replace these long-term constables. Also the cost of having a very small police department with a chief of police and a couple of part-time officers is getting very, very expensive. And so they were looking for other possible approaches."
(Keese) The town of Hartland currently contracts with the state police, but Kennedy says that option may be limited as demands on that agency increase.
Weathersfield town manager Jim Mullen says it used to be that a constable or very small police force - like Weathersfield's -- were enough for a small Vermont town.
(Mullen) "But the number of incidents involving serious matters keeps going up every decade. So we know that we need to transition to a police department. That can cover the town 24/7."
(Keese) The four-town group will meet this week to discuss the idea with a representative from the Vermont State Police.
For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese in Manchester.