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Brattleboro police, sorely understaffed, cut patrol shifts

With 12 patrol officers — about half capacity — ‘too few people were working too many hours,’ town manager says

BRATTLEBORO—A reduction in staff has led interim Brattleboro Police Chief Mark Carignan to reduce coverage from three shifts to two.

In practice, the schedule is a little more nuanced.

According to Carignan, the goal for the change — which took effect May 23 — is to ensure that remaining officers no longer work multiple overtime shifts or more than 16 hours a day.

Consequently, the department will reorganize its foot patrols to align with when the town requires the most coverage. During less busy times, officers may be on call rather than on duty at the station on Black Mountain Road.

“There are some hours where no proactive patrols will occur and police officers will not be out in the community,” Carignan explained to board members at the June 1 Selectboard meeting.

“There are certain types of non-emergency calls for service that BPD will not physically respond to, but rather will handle over the phone,” he said.

“Emergency calls for assistance will always be physically responded to, but in some cases will have a delayed response as additional officers are called in from home to report for duty,” Carignan added.

In other words, residents may see increased response times for non-emergency or non-life-threatening calls, Carignan said.

“It’s important for you as the Selectboard to know, and for the community to know, that there will be some hours of the day or night where there are no police officers patrolling the community,” he said.

An unsustainable situation

Because the staffing change will also impact officer’s pay, overtime, and schedule as laid out in the town and union’s current collective bargaining agreement, Town Manager Peter Elwell said the union contract with the officers would need to be tweaked.

Last week, the Selectboard unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the municipality and the New England Police Benevolent Association Local #412 — the union representing the department’s rank and file employees — that acknowledged the change.

Brattleboro is not alone in its staffing reductions. Police departments across the country are experiencing similar issues, Elwell said.

Overall, the change will mean a cost savings for the town, but, he added, saving money did not motivate the department’s decision to reduce shifts.

The crux of the reduction in coverage is that too few people were working too many hours, Elwell explained.

“We became very concerned about the degree to which this is burning out employees, overburdening the individual police officers and their families, and then also causing there to be very tired police officers out on the street,” Elwell said.

Historically, the Brattleboro Police Department has staffed three shifts. Over the past year, however, multiple officers have left the department for a variety of reasons, with the total number of sworn officers dropping to 17, Carignan explained in a May 25 memo to the Selectboard.

This drop in staffing means the remaining officers work longer hours and put in more overtime.

“The needs of the town and demands from residents for effective police services do not subside when our staffing is low,” Carignan wrote.

However, he pointed out that the current situation has become unsustainable.

Over the past several years, the department has kept the same level of services and responded quickly to calls, he explained.

“That said, it wouldn’t be responsible of me as their leader to sit idly by as they endure this and as they’re harmed by the workload and scheduling demands we place on them,” he told the board.

Carignan said ensuring the health and safety of the department is one of his top responsibilities.

“We expect a lot of these officers,” Elwell said to the Selectboard, “and we want to be making sure that they get proper rest, have a proper work-life balance, be able to not get personally burned out, and be able to serve the community in an excellent manner we’ve come to expect.”

The negative side of too much overtime

The Police Department is budgeted for 27 officers; in general, it operates with an average of 23 to 25. Not all the officers are assigned to patrols, Carignan said. For example, some are detectives or in command positions.

While the department as a whole is at about two-thirds of its full strength, at a staff of 17, the patrol staff is down to 12 sworn officers, or about half its strength, he added.

Carignan explained that different departments use different shift models. In Brattleboro, officers had traditionally worked four 10-hour days each week. Rather than work four days on and three off, the schedule rotated over a five-week cycle.

At one time in the department’s history, the maximum an officer could work was a 20-hour shift. Carignan called this “frankly, dangerous.”

About 10 years ago, the department changed the maximum to 16 hours, which Carignan called “still a stretch.”

One of reasons behind the change is that the department no longer had enough staff to cover three shifts without going beyond the 16-hour shift maximum.

To compensate for the lower numbers, officers work overtime. If no one volunteers to stay longer, then “officers are assigned on a rotating basis to involuntarily work an assigned overtime shift,” Carignan said.

Over short stretches that is OK, he said — officers understand that long work hours and an unpredictable schedule accompany police work.

“But it’s not a sustainable model that can be endured by any organization for a long period of time,” he said.

Involuntary overtime results in double shifts, cancelled vacations, working on unscheduled days off, and basically an unhealthy work-life balance, he continued.

Officers also miss out on the downtime necessary to recuperate and connect with loved ones.

“Their personal relationships can suffer,” he said. “And their physical and mental health can suffer. This can manifest in ways both physically and mentally.”

The current situation is “harming them,” he said.

Carignan said of the schedule change, “We will always respond to life-threatening emergencies. That’s not going to change.”

However, non-emergency calls may be handled over the telephone, he said, and some calls, despite what residents expect, might not receive an immediate response.

Life-threatening situations will always receive a response, although there could be a delay as officers may need to be called in from their homes, Carignan added.

To reduce the impacts on public safety, the department has analyzed the number of calls, the types of calls, and the times of day they are received as well as the days of week, to determine when having no officers at the station would have “the least detrimental effect on public safety,” he explained.

For reasons related to public safety, the department will not release the exact times of day they won’t be responding or to what kinds of calls, he said.(6)

Carignan said he feels that Brattleboro is, and will continue to be, a safe community.

“I am proud of the women and men of this department for enduring the above in recent years, and for doubling-down in their service to our community as additional officers continue to resign,” Carignan wrote in his memo. “They have shown commitment, dedication, loyalty, and integrity in their unwavering service to our town. I am proud to lead such a group of people.”

The town has been moving forward with recommendations from the Community Safety Review Report to address how the town deployed its resources to ensure community safety, Elwell said in a separate interview that the reduction in staff at the police department and schedule change were not a part of the community safety process.

“They’re two completely different things,” he said.

Elwell credited Carignan and the department’s lieutenants and sergeants for collaborating to built the new staffing model.

It’s an important aspect of how hard it’s been to keep three shifts, he said. People rallied around the new model. This collaboration also made reworking the collective bargaining contract easy, Elwell said.

Board member Daniel Quipp said, “I think it’s important for folks to understand that if we want our police department to be doing a job in town that they do need to be working hours that are humane,” he said.

Board member Jessica Gelter told Carignan, “I just want to express extreme gratitude for you and the police force for the conditions you’ve been working under,” and added that she also wanted to acknowledge the “stress and heartache” of missing family and vacations.

She said she felt excited that the department had found a solution.

“I liked the word you used before about ‘humane,’” said Board Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin, “and that we need to recognize the police department is under a lot of stress.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #616 (Wednesday, June 9, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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