Guest Column (1/14/10)

Williston needs police officers

Jan. 14, 2010

By Detective Mike Lavoie

I would like to start by thanking the residents of Williston for our new building; it greatly enhanced our safety and prisoner safety. We can certainly serve the town better with this facility. At this point in time, however, most of our space is empty, due to the fact that your money helped pay for a building that has the ability to house growth but will unfortunately never be allowed to evolve.

We have been told the Selectboard and the town manager will be cutting a position from our department and maybe a second one. These positions have been in place but are vacant at this time due to officer turnover, which has been high within our department.

This turnover is due to numerous factors, including lack of growth opportunities within our force. An officer is hired as a patrol officer and could easily spend their entire career not having the ability to move up in rank due to the fact that we are only allowed two patrol sergeants and two detective slots. The remaining 10 slots are patrolmen only.

This leaves our department with the ability to allow rookie police officers to be hired and trained and gain road experience before moving on to departments with more options for their futures. You cannot blame them for not being loyal to our agency, as we are not loyal to them in many ways. We fail to provide the opportunities for these young men and women to grow as police officers and individuals in such a stunted atmosphere.

I came here 11 years ago with the hopes of joining a department that would allow me to climb the ladder to further my career in law enforcement. I was mistaken, and it is unfortunate that every year young officers who have amazing abilities and skills in their field walk out of our department to join another because we cannot provide them with a job that will allow them to grow.

These young men and women get involved in law enforcement because they want to enforce laws, help people and make your towns that much safer. They don’t get into it because they are looking for a job that allows them to drive around all day and look for speeders. These are officers who want to become lieutenants who want to become sergeants and detectives. They want to be on task forces and tactical teams and work on cases that affect the grand scheme of things. They want to accomplish something that they can be proud of. Do you blame them? Do we as a municipality deprive them that right?

At this time we have 10 uniformed officers, one detective and an acting chief. Chief Jim Dimmick was on sick leave for over a year until he resigned on Nov. 30, 2009. In that time, we have lost three officers from our force and were ready to start the process of filling those vacant positions when we were informed of the proposed budget cuts.

The officers presently patrolling your town do an excellent job in protecting the residents and their property and the people who travel through our town. Your officers are working 12-hour shifts and they are on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

On a good night or day there are two officers patrolling and a patrol sergeant on duty. This allows us to barely keep our heads above water answering calls for service. There have actually been times recently when we simply could not respond to a call due to the lack of manpower. This leaves the door open for a possibly dangerous situation to arise.

We have been lucky to this point, but the question is, do the town leaders want to push their luck by sacrificing the safety of our officers and the citizens of this town? We do not.

There were several studies done starting in 1989. The result of the studies showed what the rank structure should be for adequate police coverage for the future. This was before the box stores, Maple Tree Place and an increase in residential developments. These developments have resulted in an increase in DWIs, domestic assaults and robberies, burglaries (purse and retail thefts), traffic accidents and other related crimes.

We had one home invasion last October that was clearly drug- related and were fortunate that no death resulted. And we are lucky we haven’t had more, as other surrounding towns have seen an increase in this type of crime. It’s just a matter of time before we have more of them.

The results of the earlier surveys showed we should have 15 officers by 1995, which we had at one time. The town continues to grow, but the police department does not. The later surveys showed us having 20 to 25 officers to include rank structure.

In 1990, Williston had a population of 5,600. Last year, that number was more than 9,000 residents.

There are more residential developments on the way. With that comes more people, more traffic and ultimately more crime.

We now have Maple Tree Place and are considered the largest retail area in Vermont. On any given day, there are 18,000 to 20,000 people traveling through Williston.

The union was asked to take a 2 percent decrease from a 5 percent raise that was agreed to at our three-year contract meeting two years ago. We were told if we took this decrease we would not lose our 15th officer position (we were told the fate of the department was in our hands). The officers declined to take the decrease in order to support an officer position.

Our patrol officers make on average $30,000 to $40,000 a year — not a lot of money for risking their lives every day. That does not include benefits and insurance, which was the figure of $70,000 for an officer position, which was in the Observer a few weeks ago. I believe it is important to clarify, as I believe there was some confusion by our taxpayers that we were paid more than we actually are.

I believe the fate of your department has been in the hands of your town manager and the Selectboard, and I believe they have failed in providing you, the residents, with an adequate Police Department to protect you.

I ask that you take time to voice your opinions on these issues and contact your Selectboard.

 

Detective Michael Lavoie is a detective with the Williston Police Department. He serves as the department’s union steward.