BY JASON STARR
For a few short months this summer, the Williston Police Department was fully staffed. But three recent officer resignations have put the department in the familiar position of playing catch-up, looking for officers in an especially challenging labor market for employers.
Officer Brandon Allen left in August and Dan Macaig left last week. Officer Logan Young plans to leave this month, pending another job offer, according to Lt. Josh Moore. All three are pursuing careers outside of law enforcement, Moore said. The department will be left with 12 officers and two supervisors.
“There are a lot of officers that are getting out of this profession,” Moore said. “There are definitely opportunities to make a lot more money and have a different lifestyle in the private sector, compared to being a public figure.”
The national debate about police reform sparked last year by the police killing of George Floyd has “weighed pretty heavy on the officers,” said Moore. But he notes that support for the Williston Police Department remains “extremely high.”
“When I go out into the community, I’m always kind of amazed at how many people come up and say ‘thank you for everything that you do,’” Moore said. “Every single day there are people waving to the officers at traffic stops and out at calls.”
The staffing challenges come at a time when Williston’s population and commercial centers are growing and the department should be expanding along with them, Moore said.
“When we are down two or three officers, we have to cut back on certain things that we do, just because of the sheer volume of calls that we’re handling,” he said. “And every time a major neighborhood goes in or a new store comes to town, our call volume is just going to continue to increase.”
“Vermont law enforcement … is already in a staffing crisis. The forecast for the future is that this crisis will deepen to unprecedented levels.”Jennifer Morrison, Vermont Department of Public Safety
Police staffing is a statewide problem, Jennifer Morrison of the Department of Public Safety wrote in a July memo.
“The number of officers leaving Vermont law enforcement agencies vastly outpaces the number being hired or newly certified,” Morrison wrote. “Vermont law enforcement … is already in a staffing crisis. The forecast for the future is that this crisis will deepen to unprecedented levels.”
The selectboard entered negotiations in September on a new employment contract with Williston’s police officer union. The current 1.5-year contract expires in December. It carried forward rules on officer accountability that were in previous contracts, while giving officers a 1.6 percent annual pay increase.
But the Williston Police Department has changed the way it handles citizen complaints against officers since the contract was finalized last June.
Previously, the police chief would bring in an outside investigator — often a retired police officer — to look into citizen complaints against an officer.
That responsibility is now under Lt. Moore’s purview. Any decision about officer discipline or termination would be made after Moore’s investigation, under the authority of the town manager. An officer can appeal any town manager decision to the selectboard.
“Any time there is any sort of a complaint, I do look into it,” said Moore. “It can be anonymous, it can be a written statement, or verbal. Whatever it is, that individual can be assured it will not be pushed off to the wayside.”
There is also a new statewide use-of-force policy that went into effect Oct. 1. The policy resulted from Gov. Phil Scott’s 2020 “Public Safety Reform Initiative” announced in the wake of the Floyd killing. Officers statewide have received training on the policy in recent weeks.
The policy emphasizes de-escalation and newly classifies chokeholds as deadly force. Moore said the new policy puts in writing what officers had already been doing in practice. The availability of social workers from the Howard Center in a collaboration with Williston police that was launched in 2018 — along with the introduction in 2020 of a comfort dog program — has helped Williston officers with de-escalation.
“This has been in the works for a little while,” Moore said, “but once the George Floyd incident happened out in Minneapolis, the state Legislature really put a push on reforming. But a lot of it is updating and clarifying things that may not have been written in the previous use-of-force policy but were widely used.”
Meanwhile, WCAX reported last week that former Williston police officer Timothy Oliver has pleaded guilty to domestic assault and unlawful mischief. The charges were filed last September, the same month his employment in Williston ended. Oliver received a deferred sentence under a plea deal and a year of probation, WCAX reported.