Small towns wonder if a police department is worth it

On New Year’s Eve, some 1,000 people living in the small town of Hill quietly lost their police department.

In late December, Hill Corporal Andrew Williamson resigned after the city unsuccessfully attempted to hire a new chief. The only other officer was on sick leave. The part-time police department had never offered 24-hour coverage, but Williamson’s departure left the city with a decision: should they increase their budget to find a new chief, or eliminate the local service altogether. ?

While major cities across the country have had heated debates over police funding, in small towns in New Hampshire, the abolition of a police department can happen when a city simply votes to stop funding a service or is unable to staff one or two positions.

Former Alexandria Police Chief Donald Sullivan recently worked for Hill to map out options moving forward and to deal with legal requirements such as the transfer of ongoing criminal cases and reports of child abuse to other law enforcement despite the city not having its own police force. .

In a report presented to Hill’s elected officials in June, Sullivan wrote that the city had four options: disband the department, hire a full-time chief and part-time officers, hire a part-time chief and part-time officers , or contract with a neighboring municipality. He analyzed 10 cities of similar size with a combination of part-time, full-time, and no police departments.

“My opinion is that the city should budget enough for the full-time position,” Sullivan said during a selection meeting, which would include a 30% salary increase to attract a candidate in the competitive job market. today.

Hill’s police budget has grown from $67,000 in 2011 to $95,858 in 2021. Sullivan advised offering at least $120,000 to hire a new full-time chief, bringing the police budget from the city ​​at $150,000.

Hill residents will have the opportunity to have their say on the future of their police service at a public hearing or next year’s town hall. Earlier this month, elected officials had yet to make a decision.

Disappearing departments

While the number of full-time police officers in New Hampshire has increased by one-fifth over the past two decades, this growth has not occurred consistently across the state.

Since 2000, some cities have abolished their departments in favor of coverage by New Hampshire State Police or local sheriff’s deputies. Towns that have cut their police departments in the past 20 years include Sullivan, Stewartstown, Milan, Lempster, Gilsum, Errol, Stratford, Croydon, Dalton and the Concord-area town of Salisbury.

Lempster administrative assistant Robin Cantara said the city voted to get rid of its police department around 2007. The Lempster Selection Board is pleased with the coverage of the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, whose city ​​found the service cheaper, more reliable and more professional than its own police department.

“There’s no municipal agenda when there’s the sheriff’s department,” Cantara said.

Some voters are eliminating their departments after tensions between city officials and police departments boil over. In Salisbury, the city got rid of its department after the resignation of the two part-time officers, citing a hostile working environment.

The most extreme case of conflict between the city and the police in New Hampshire occurred in Salem, where the police department was the subject of a critical audit in 2018 that highlighted the disregard of the management of the police for the authority of the city manager, among other internal issues. The Salem Police Department grew by 8% between 2010 and 2020, adding five new officers. The city did not provide the number of police officers in the department in 2000.

Following the critical audit, Sgt. Michael Verrochi posted on his public Facebook page: “Wolves don’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep.” He remains one of nine sergeants and 64 full-time officers in the department.

Regional solutions

Other cities like Temple and Greenville have combined their departments to save costs while maintaining a local police presence.

In 2004, Greenville rejected its police department at a town hall and proposed to neighboring towns for amalgamation.

Temple Police Chief James McTague had worked as a prosecutor in Greenville in the 1990s, and a friend asked him to think about it. Although McTague was initially hesitant to get involved, he took one look at the numbers and was amazed. After residents approved the merger in March 2005, Greenville saved more than $150,000 in the first year, while Temple saved $60,000.

Officers got raises, and Temple didn’t have to build a new police station. Both cities save on insurance and administrative costs and share the cost of large purchases like cruisers. The Temple-Greenville Police Department currently has four full-time officers and four part-time officers.

Seventeen years after the merger, McTague estimates that the two cities have saved $4.5 million, while crime is down 74%. When he visits other cities to share his experience, he says he sometimes sees backlash, including from police chiefs who don’t want to lose their jobs. But the main obstacle is something more emotional.

“They can’t get over a thing,” McTague said. “I coined the phrase ‘the sandbox mentality.’ They don’t want to share their toys.

In towns with fewer than 3,000 residents, New Hampshire State Police have the responsibility to respond to calls, but troopers cannot provide all the proactive policing or attention to petty crime that some residents want. State Police Troop D covers all 25 towns and two towns in Merrimack County, and is responsible for covering Salisbury, which has no police department, as well as other small towns that have coverage of less than 24 hours.

While county sheriff’s offices have become more involved in police work over time, they lack the bandwidth for routine patrols.

“The idea of ​​combining or regionalizing, whether it’s combining departments, I think that’s a great idea,” Hill’s Sullivan said in an interview. “You can pool resources and have more resources available for a particular area. The theory is that you might not need someone on duty in Danbury and someone in Hill at the same time, but someone can cover both towns in case of an emergency call.

The cities of Danbury and Alexandria considered a police department merger this year, but Danbury voted against it.

By taking a regional approach, cities can save on computer software, as well as the pay of supervisors, dispatchers and secretaries. For some small, cash-strapped communities, this could be a long-term policing solution.

Part time or full time?

Between 2000 and 2020, the number of full-time agents has steadily increased in New Hampshire, but the number of part-time certified agents has decreased by 25%. Trading part-time positions for full-time positions increases costs in both salary and contributions to the New Hampshire pension system.

A subcommittee of the Police Standards and Training Board is evaluating the role of New Hampshire’s part-time academy program after the final report of the New Hampshire Commission on Accountability, Community and Transparency of law enforcement has raised questions about part-time certification. The subcommittee is trying to decide how to change the program and whether to continue.

The New Hampshire part-time police officer certification requires 220 hours of training, compared to 750 for full-time officers. However, part-time agents have all the same powers as full-time agents.

“There is no limit for the officer who has received less training,” said John Scippa, director of the Police Standards and Training Council. “To that end, we really have to recognize that police work is work that requires a certain level of training. »

Hampstead Deputy Chief Robert Kelley said he believes the growth in the number of full-time officers statewide has occurred as New Hampshire police have “professionalized,” with higher standards requiring an officer to have more time to devote to police work.

Hampstead currently has nine full-time and seven part-time officers, along with two “specials” – often retired officers, who work part-time.

Kelley said full-time officers serve communities better because they’re more present and connected to city residents. They are more likely to recognize a car involved in an accident and better able to follow up the next day than an officer who is only there for a weekend shift.

When the part-time program began in the 1970s, it was intended to help agencies increase their police forces, Scippa said, but over time a few municipalities replaced full-time positions with full-time positions. partiel.

McTague said he was disappointed the state seemed to be moving away from part-time certification. He appreciates being able to hire part-time greens before promoting talented officers to full-time positions.

It’s not just early-career officers who work part-time. Some older officers and chiefs quit full-time and continue to work part-time while drawing a pension.

The Police Standards and Training Council’s review of part-time certification is taking place against a backdrop of police services everywhere struggling to retire and retain officers, placing services like Hill in an uncertain situation.

Sullivan thinks the allure of training and recertifying for a part-time gig has waned. “There is no more part-time,” he says.

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