The Senate Government Operations Committee is holding a series of meetings across the state to look at how Vermont pays for and uses its law enforcement services.
The committee hopes to take the information it gathers and introduce legislation next year that could change how municipalities hire and fund their policing services.
Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, the chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, says the meetings are being held to talk with police chiefs, municipal officials and citizens to see how they feel about the law enforcement system that is in place.
"People haven't defined what they mean by 'public safety,'" she says. "Does it mean that there are certain things that rise to the level of a crime where somebody comes, and certain things things that they might be there the next day," using addressing a neighbor's noisy dog as her example.
"We haven't made that decision," White says. "And if we do make that decision, are we willing to pay for it? And how are we willing to pay for it?"
The debate is nothing new. White has reports dating back 40 years that made recommendations on how Vermont could more efficiently provide law enforcement.
One of the more controversial ideas would force municipalities to provide some level of service by contracting with an agency if there isn't a local police department.
White knows there's resistance to having Montpelier tell towns what they need.
But as resources tighten up across the board, White says it's time to ask some tough questions and finally come up with long-range solutions.
"So we've been working on the issue for a long time, but there are a lot of parts of the issue that nobody wants to tackle because they're controversial," she says. "They're going to make everybody angry, there's costs associated with them and people don't want to take it on."
Vermont is currently covered by a patchwork of law enforcement agencies.
Some towns pay for their own police departments, while others hire county sheriffs for part-time coverage. And some towns don't fund any extra service and rely on the Vermont State Police to investigate anything from barking dogs to serious drug crimes.
In the village of Bellows Falls, Police Chief Ron Lake says his department is fighting an uphill battle against the heroin crisis that is also challenging departments across the state.
He knows that his officers are expected to engage with citizens and take care of the day-to-day issues that affect a small village of about 3,200 people.
But at the same time, the force is dealing with serious crime. A couple of weeks ago one of his officers stopped a car in the village and found about 1,000 bags of heroin.
"It's a difficult, complicated situation," Lake says. "I've got some significant investigations going on and I've got people complaining because I'm not writing this so-and-so a ticket for their dog pooping on the lawn or I'm not writing enough parking tickets."
It costs a lot of money to run the Bellows Falls Police Department — this year's budget is about $1.7 million — and taxpayers might be at the end of their ropes. At this year's annual meeting, Lake asked for a 10th officer to combat the drug problem but the voters said 'no.'
Lake says the heroin problem isn't going away, and he says it might be a good time to have a statewide conversation to see if there is a better way of funding law enforcement.
"If that were to happen, that could be a big thing for this community," says Lake. "And then of course that opens the door a lot wider for law enforcement outside the village of Bellows Falls. But if it doesn't, yeah, the burden on the taxpayers for the village of Bellows Falls will continue to climb."
For communities that don't invest in county sheriff protection or their own police departments, the Vermont State Police has been the de facto law enforcement agency.
Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, agrees that it's a good time for Vermont to take a critical look at how law enforcement is provided across the state.
"It's an incredibly important conversation right now, especially because the state police is stretched very thin with resources," Birmingham says. "I think that this is gonna have to be something that the towns have a voice in. Something the state police, the county sheriffs, local police departments, we all have to come together and have this discussion to ensure that what we're doing is right for the taxpayers, and it's keeping Vermonters safe, which is our mission."
The Vermont State Police provide primary law enforcement for 200 towns, which makes up about half the population in the state.
Birmingham says if lawmakers decide to finally tackle the issue and put together a statewide strategy, they should take a long-range view and move slowly, to make sure everyone can get on board.
"I don't think we should bite off everything at once. I think that's gonna be too much," he says. "It'll be too much on the taxpayers. It'll be too much on the law enforcement. But if we look and we do some surgical changes to get to a bigger picture, that may take us 10 years to get to, I think that's the solution. And that's progress."
The Senate committee has already held meetings in Bellows Falls, White River Junction, Manchester Center and Brandon, and there are more scheduled hearings around the state into early November.
White says after the last hearing the committee will hold a work session to make sure they're ready to debate potential legislation when they return to Montpelier in January.
Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017
- St. Johnsbury: Northeastern Vermont Development Association, 9 a.m. — 11:30 a.m.
- Newport: Municipal building, 1:30 p.m. — 4 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017
- St. Albans: Town Hall boardroom, 9 a.m. — 11:30 a.m.
- Waterbury: State Office Complex in the Fox Conference Center's Oak Room, 1:30 p.m. — 4 p.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017
- Montpelier: Vermont Statehouse in the Ethan Allen Room, 9 a.m. — 4 p.m.