Brattleboro police to test civilian support program

The department, stretched for officers, will pay from unexpended funds in the current budget

BRATTLEBORO — The police department, which has dealt with a nationwide staffing shortage by subtracting work shifts, is launching a pilot program to test something else: Adding civilians.

The force - which is budgeted for 27 officers but has only 18, just two-thirds its full complement - has unveiled plans for a proposed Brattleboro Resources Assistance Team (BRAT) to help with administrative tasks that don't require tactical training.

“The program will allow for us to continue to provide all of the services we currently provide while also allowing our sworn officers to put more focus on criminal activity such as burglaries, larcenies from vehicles, and robberies,” Police Chief Norma Hardy has written in a memorandum to local leaders.

Currently facing about 900 calls a month, the short-staffed police department is prioritizing crimes against people over a rising number against property.

“A lot of our calls have been about people who want to harm others or harm themselves,” Hardy told the public earlier this fall amid complaints about downtown drug dealing and related problems.

As part of a six-month test, a BRAT staffer will greet people at the front desk, take information about non-investigatory and non-injury accidents, write reports on lost or stolen property, help with fingerprints for people needing background checks, and assist in traffic control at special events or crash scenes.

“We are hoping that this pilot program will be a positive addition,” Hardy wrote in the memo. “By focusing our sworn personnel more on criminal activity, such as burglaries and larcenies from vehicles, we will potentially allow for higher clearance rates for those types of crimes.”

The Selectboard, hearing of the proposal at its Dec. 13 meeting, learned it would be paid for with budgeted but unspent police money.

“We know how to do officers in a uniform with a badge and a gun,” interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland told the board. “This is the chief trying to explore other ways in which to serve the community and to staff up a little differently. We think it's worth a try.”

The proposal comes a year and a half after the department reduced its daily patrols from three shifts to two because of a lack of qualified applicants, although police stress they continue to field all calls and respond to all emergencies.

It also follows a 2020 municipally sponsored Community Safety Review that found one of the state's most politically progressive towns was among “the worst” for disproportionately policing people with marginalized identities - although the report called for “acknowledgement” and “accountability” rather than large-scale defunding of the understaffed department.

Shortly after the review, Brattleboro hired Hardy - an officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - as Vermont's first Black female police chief.

The Selectboard has asked to receive an update on the pilot program at the end of its six-month trial.

“Given the range of challenges that the chief is trying to address,” Moreland said, “it seems to us that this is an opportunity worth exploring.”

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