Officer shortage poses problem in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s rigorous standards for selecting and training its part-time police officers has placed the department in somewhat of a personnel pickle, according to its chief, and also stretched its budget.
Once trained, said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, the part-time officers are being wooed by other law enforcement agencies to fill fulltime positions, to the extent that the Middlebury force currently has no part-timers on its roster of 14 officers.
This, Hanley said, coupled with three officer vacancies during the past year, have forced the chief to have his remaining fulltime officers fill shifts at overtime pay rates. These shifts would otherwise have been filled by part-timers at a lower rate. As a result, the department’s overtime/shift replacement budget as of last month was $50,000 over its annual budget.
While Hanley is optimistic he will be able to wipe up much of the red ink through the salary savings from the fulltime officer vacancies, he is considering a more permanent solution: Rather than hire part-time officers, the department for the same cost could instead replace them with one more fulltime officer.  
“We’ve seen the interest in working fulltime dwindle over the past 20 years,” Hanley said. “We used to carry a staff of six to eight part-time officers. Three of our eight-hour shifts during the week are supposed to be staffed by part-time officers. They gave us a real resource to make sure we always had sufficient people to fill normal vacancies, people on vacations, sick and the usual leave time.”
Hanley said that the department trains its part-timers to essentially the same standards required of fulltime officers, which can mean an eight-month process. Fulltime candidates must have more than 700 hours of basic training at the Vermont Police Academy, followed by 12 weeks of field training, followed by another three weeks of extra police academy training, according to Hanley.  
He said Middlebury’s part-timers must attend the academy for part-time officers and then spread additional mandatory training over a longer period than fulltime officers, due to their other employment obligations.
Middlebury also submits all its applicants to background checks, polygraph tests, drug tests and other vetting procedures that take time and cost money.
 That’s a big commitment not only for the town force, but for part-timers, who must work training and shift coverage around their other jobs and activities. With that kind of training to complete, most candidates would just as soon become fulltime officers, Hanley said.
“They become eligible to work, they’re here for two or three months, and they’re gone,” Hanley said. “They become an attractive entity for another agency.”
He said other departments are happy to snap these officers up, knowing that Middlebury has trained them to fulltime standards.
“We’ve trained part-time officers for many other agencies, who are now working fulltime in these other agencies,” Hanley said.
One of Middlebury’s former part-timers is now an arson investigator in New Hampshire, another is working for the state’s defender general, and others have signed on with other municipal police departments.
Middlebury police budgets for what Hanley calls “normal times,” a schedule that accounts for officers’ sick time, vacations, and other commitments. He said the department can absorb typical, briefer vacancies, but it becomes a tougher proposition for longer periods of time.
And Hanley noted that fulltime candidates, once vetted and hired, are in training mode for 32 weeks before their first day of service. And the department pays the new recruit during that period.
“During that time, we are still carrying a vacancy,” Hanley said.
Like many other Vermont town departments, Middlebury provides around-the-clock coverage. So with multiple vacancies this past year and no part-timers, the department has had to call in fulltime officers to fill shifts at an average overtime wage of around $35 per hour — double what a part-timer would be paid, according to Hanley.
Officers appreciate earning the extra money, but the extra hours can wear them down, Hanley said. Overtime is offered on a rotation basis that factors in how many hours the officer has already worked. If no one volunteers, the department has to order an off-duty fulltime officer to take a shift, according to Hanley.
“With two vacancies, the impact on the budget is almost catastrophic,” Hanley said.  
First response calls and emergencies remain the top priorities for the department, Hanley stressed.
Fortunately, MPD has filled one of its vacancies with an applicant — Connor Sousa — who is currently attending the police academy. Sousa was hired last August, will graduate at the end of May, and will be on duty in June after a brief orientation.
A second recruit, Darrin Hinterneder, comes from the Addison County Sheriff’s Department and will need 16 weeks of training at the academy. The department’s latest search has also yielded two finalists, one of whom is local. The selected candidate will attend the academy in August in order to be ready to hit the streets in February of next year, Hanley said.
“There’s just no way to make it faster,” Hanley said. “We’re not going to take shortcuts. You can do some pretty fast hiring in this business if you like, but it just isn’t worth it. When you look at the pattern here during the past 20 years, there haven’t been any scandals, any issues of people using (excessive) force, because of the effort we put into hiring.”
Hanley said his department has a core of veteran officers who have been there for more than 20 years. He said those who hit the five-year mark usually end up staying for a while.
Middlebury is not alone in having a dearth of part-time officers, according to Hanley.
“A number of departments have just done away with part-time staff,” he said, a direction in which his department could be heading.
Still, Addison County’s other municipal police departments are reporting decent access to part-time officers.
“We currently have four part-time officers; two are fulltime certified but rarely work for us,” Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs said. “It’s been more difficult to recruit part-time officers since training requirements were changed a number of years ago.”
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel reported receiving 10 to 12 applicants for full- and part-time vacancies on his department recently. Those applications yielded hires for the two vacancies.
“Part-timers do play an important part in my department,” Merkel said.
He noted Vergennes has all its part-timers go through the Vermont Police Academy program for part-time officers. Chief Merkel then determines any additional training the new officers should take in such categories as domestic violence, driving while intoxicated, and radar.
Vergennes part-timers usually get an additional 60 to 100 hours of training after the academy, according to Merkel.
“This department’s response is to give them as much training as they can possibly get,” Merkel said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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