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Vermont challenged in finding new police officers~ RH 11-8-15

Vermont challenged in finding new police officers
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | November 08, 2015

Not every Vermont police department is struggling to find new officers, but many in the field say it’s getting harder to not only find the right people but to find those who are even interested in the position.

There are close to 70 law enforcement agencies in Vermont. The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council shows that about half those agencies are advertising for new officers.

Certified officers in Vermont must go through the Vermont Police Academy, which only hosts two classes a year for full-time officers. When it operates at maximum capacity, the academy turns out 76 officers a year. The Vermont State Police attempts to bring on 30 officers a year.

Richard Gauthier, who has been executive director of the Vermont Police Academy for five years, said state leaders are aware of the stress on the academy to train recruits.

“We have let the Legislature know that we are restricted to two classes a year to a maximum of 38 (recruits) because of facility and staffing issues,” he said.

Last week, the academy, which also hosts three part-time sessions a year, was filling the last few slots for its February class. The classes last 16 weeks and students live at the Pittsford academy Monday through Friday during the term.

Gauthier said there is a long-term planning process that includes a new facility, but that’s years down the road.

However, the issue isn’t simply the logistics of aging infrastructure. Gauthier pointed out that the selection process at most agencies is pretty rigorous. Recruits take the academy’s entry test and psychological inventory, and the department sponsoring the recruit does its own background check and polygraph test.

Entry to the academy also requires passing a physical fitness test because of the rigors of the training process.

Commander David Covell of the Rutland City Police Department said the city has done well in finding recruits, which he said is a tribute to the department.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest in the Rutland City Police Department because people that are interested in law enforcement are hearing about what we’re doing here,” he said, “our different initiatives, like Project VISION or our data-driven approach to crime reduction, so a lot of young people are hearing what we’re doing here differently.”

However, Covell, who until last week was the acting chief, said he had noticed that there didn’t seem to be as many young people interested in a career in law enforcement as there once were.

It’s a big issue for the Vermont State Police, according to Capt. Ingrid Jonas, the staff operations commander whose responsibilities include training, recruitment and retention.

“Our applicant pool has gone down considerably over the past several years,” she said. “We used to get thousands of applicants. Now we get hundreds of applicants per year. Our process is extremely rigorous in terms of selecting the right people for policing, so if the pool of applicants is smaller, it just makes it harder to find the right numbers.”

Jonas said historically only 2 to 5 percent of the applicant pool goes on to become troopers. This creates a special challenge now when the State Police are expecting to lose up to 30 percent of the troopers in the next three to five years to retirement.

Small-town issues

The competition for good recruits creates problems for smaller departments as well. Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries, who has been chief for 11 years, said he’s had some difficulty finding full-time officers and “almost impossible” to recruit part-time officers.

“Obviously, being a small department, it’s hard for us to compete against Rutland City or Bennington or the state police. They pay a lot more than we do,” he said.

Humphries said he had found in his department, and in the nearby Castleton Police Department, that some recruits get their certification and training in a small town and then leave for positions with the Vermont State Police.

Barre Town Manager Carl Rogers said the department is his town has been stable and hasn’t needed a new recruit in almost two years. He said the strong economy before 2008 was part of the reason. But even after the town saw more applicants following the economic downturn, he said, many of those applicants couldn’t pass the fitness or polygraph tests.

Humphries said another challenge was that some neighboring states like New York and Massachusetts offer better pay or benefits. While Humphries said he loves his job and is satisfied with his compensation, Vermont can be less competitive if recruits are starting as New York troopers and making more than experienced local police officers here.

Learn and leave

There are some positive signs. Reneé Zirpolo Merges, who teaches criminal justice classes at Southern Vermont College, said the major is the second largest at the college. She said the number of open police positions could even become a positive if it can attract students to take criminal justice courses at Vermont colleges and then stay for the job.

However, that could be a tough sell for those who have other plans for their lives.

“I don’t think we’re seeing a drop in people interested but we have students not only right from Vermont, we have students from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and surrounding state whose idea it is to come and get educated,” she said, “… and their real dream is to go back and serve on police departments that maybe family members have served on or from their own areas and be close to their extended families.”

Jonas agreed that quality of life could be key to recruiting new troopers. She said part of the job was selling Vermont as much as the Vermont State Police.

Another challenge is that recruiting new police is more than just attracting numbers of people. Killington Police Chief Whit Montgomery said his small department has the unusual challenge of finding someone who can serve a town that can swell from 800 locals to 20,000 people during a busy ski weekend and who can serve in a difficult position.

“One minute you’re a father or a mother, you’re a nurse or a psychologist or a psychiatrist, you’re an attorney, you’re a judge,” Montgomery said.

“You’re all those things within five minutes of responding to a call,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of background stuff on a lot of the situations you get into so it really does take a unique person with a unique skillset to do the job to begin with.”

A wide net

Jonas said the State Police are trying to embrace that challenge, looking for more people of color and background as well as those with varying backgrounds.

“We want to cast the net wide,” she said. “We want people with a variety of life and work experience because at the end of the day that’s mostly what we’re looking for. People who have maturity, people who have integrity, people who have a sense of service and a commitment to their community make really good troopers.”

Covell, however, said there can also be value to a slow and steady approach.

“You can’t compromise on your standards, regardless of how many vacancies you have. You have to hire people that have the values, personal integrity, sound moral character that make them worthy of becoming a police officer,” he said.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com

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