Claremont Police Force Depleted; Wages, Workload Drive Turnover, Chief Says
Officer Crystal Simmonds logs off her computer at the end of her shift in Claremont earlier this week. Simmonds has been a police officer in Claremont for 13 years, since she was 20. She said that while the pay is lower than some surrounding departments, she has stayed, in part, because seniority allows her to work a day shift. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Cpl. Brent Wilmot loads gear into a cruiser at the beginning of his shift. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Claremont Police Cpl. Brent Wilmot knocks on the door of a Claremont residence while attempting to serve an arrest warrant. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Officer Crystal Simmonds fills out an accident report with J.D. Larosiliere, left, of Springfield, Vt., and Eugene Greene, of Unity, after the two were involved in a fender bender. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Claremont — When officer Shawn Hallock left the Claremont Police Department in October after more than 11 years on the force, he went to work in Newport, where the wage scale for officers is higher. Workload and scheduling also played a role in his decision.
“I would say it was a combination of all three,” Hallock said in an interview earlier this week .
Hallock is not alone. Three other officers have left Claremont in the last year to join the force in Plainfield, and another left to become a state trooper. Additionally, Capt. Colby Casey retired last week, leaving the department down four positions from the normal force of 24.
Two recent hires, who are part of the 20, are training at the state police academy and won’t join the force until April, meaning that there are just 18 officers currently working. There are two other conditional hires, Police Chief Alex Scott said recently, which would bring the department up to 22, but they would also have to attend the training academy over the summer.
“Even if we were at 24 I would still like more because we have to cover vacation, sick time, training,” Scott said.
At the heart of the problem, the chief said, is compensation. The police union and the city have not agreed on a contract since 2008, which means officers have gone years without a cost-of-living raise, and prospects for a negotiated agreement any time soon are unclear. Both sides have declared an impasse and have agreed to a fact finder; privately, both sides acknowledge that health care premiums, to which the department employees contributed nothing, are a major sticking point.
(The city’s public works employees, who are part of the same union as police, and Claremont firefighters have also worked without a contract since 2008. Their insurance is also paid 100 percent by the city.)
While the correlation between no pay raises and the ability to hire and retain qualified officers may not be a precise one because other factors are involved, Scott believes the contract impasse has had an effect.
“I think a new contract would create a bit of stability,” Scott, who is not covered by the union contract, said in a recent interview .
Claremont’s pay range for full-time officers is $16.21 to $21.13 an hour.
A recent job posting for a full-time officer in Lebanon advertised a pay range of $23.31 to $28.14 per hour. When health insurance premiums are factored in, which are paid 100 percent by the city in Claremont but not in Lebanon, the difference is still more than $4 an hour, Scott said.
Newport Town Manager Paul Brown said that its department’s range is $19.10 to $24.16 an hour. For health insurance, those on the individual plan pay 5 percent with the family plan at 10 percent.
In Plainfield, where there are just three full-time officers, including the chief, Town Administrator Steve Halleran said the pay scale for a full-time officer ranges from $16.50 to $24 with the town paying 100 percent of health insurance. They also rotate the night shift duty once a month and there is an extra day’s pay each week for the night officer.
“Plainfield and Newport can pay more because in five years we have not had any raises,” said Lt. Andrew O’Hearne, the union negotiator for Claremont Police. “These other places have gone past us. Even if we get 2 or 3 percent, we will still be behind.”
Scott said the reduced staff impacts the department in several ways, including increased workload and overtime pay.
“It makes it easy for another agency (department) to say they can cut the workload, improve scheduling and pay $2 to $3 more an hour,” Scott said. “That can mean a significant improvement in someone’s life.”
Officer Glen St. Amant said he left Claremont after 8 years for Plainfield because of a more favorable schedule, which allowed for more time his wife and two children.
“I was compensated (better) but that was not the main reason,” said St. Amant, who recently left Plainfield to work for the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department. “The scheduling played a big part .”
Scott emphasized that the reduced staff has not affected residents’ safety but it has curtailed what he termed “proactive” police work.
“We do less motor vehicle enforcement and things like foot patrols,” the chief said. “I’m sure the downtown merchants would like us doing foot patrols. Right now, we go where the need is greatest at any given time.”
It is not only about filling the positions but about retaining experienced officers, Scott said.
“You are replacing a seven to 10 year veteran with a new recruit,” Scott said last week when describing one of the impacts of no contract.
With a staff of 18, there is a sergeant, corporal and three officers on the evening shift from 4 to midnight; a sergeant, corporal and two patrol officers on during the day; and a sergeant, corporal and two patrol officers on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift.
Optimally, the midnight and days shifts would have one more officer and the night shift, two more.
Other effects of a reduced staff are more subtle but can take a toll over time.
“Low staffing means a high workload without a chance for a breather,” Scott said. “We like them to have a stint at the police academy for training and off the front lines.”
Another key position that the department has not filled in several years is a juvenile services officer. Scott said the JSO plays an important role in servicing a vulnerable part of the population.
“They track delinquencies, work on child victim cases, act as a liaison with (Department of Child, Youth and Families),” Scott said. “I think people lose sight of what the position requires.”
The School Resource Officer was unfilled at the beginning of the year, and now Cpl. Emily Cobb will fill in as the SRO three days a week, Scott said .
“They are excited to have us back,” Scott said. “I would like to have an SRO and Juvenile Services Officers working as a team on those issues.”
Claremont has had 24 police positions since Scott was hired as chief in June 2003 and at times has dropped to 22. By comparison, Lebanon, a similar sized city, has 34 officers. Scott has lobbied for a minimum of 26.
At his budget presentation in November, Scott said Claremont had 27 full-time staff members in 1992 and a total of about 18,000 calls for services. Twenty years later there are three fewer full-time employees but the number of calls has increased to about 24,500.
Scott told the City Council the department has sought to hire certified officers.
“It takes over six months to hire, train and release an officer to solo duty,” Scott told the council. “We’ve tried to hire currently certified officers, but as an example, we recently had one turn us down for Gorham, N.H., because they were offering him $2 more an hour than we could.”
Clearly frustrated, Scott took the bold move during his presentation to the council of recommending adding money to his budget for a wage and benefits package for the union that would cost $34,800 ($11,600 a year for three years) versus the $51,000 cost to replace an officer.
The recommendation, which included police paying a portion of their health insurance, was not acted upon by the council. Instead, Scott was reprimanded by one councilor, who said the chief was coming close to violating fair labor practices by publicly recommending a contract resolution.
Nevertheless, Scott pushed for the council to accept his plan, saying it would solve the department’s two biggest problems: heavy workloads necessitated by low staffing and uncompetitive pay .
City Manager Guy Santagate said last week he could not talk publicly about the negotiations with the police union or the specifics of any proposal, but he did talk about the fact finder.
“I look forward to that process,” said Santagate. “The fact finder is an outside third party that will look at it from the view of the city and the view of the union and will write a report that will be brought to the council.”
He hopes the result will lead to some sort of agreement.
O’Hearne, a detective and patrolman, is hopeful as well but said fact finding represent a risk for officers.
“Fact finding is like a roll of the dice,” O’Hearne said. “He will come back with what he thinks is a reasonable proposal. It could favor us or it could favor the city.”
While any recommendation from the fact finder is nonbinding, O’Hearne said he was pleased the report will become public at some point, giving residents an opportunity to see what each side is offering.
Last week, Scott said the pay issue needs to be resolved or it will continue to hurt the department’s ability to retain officers.
“Every year that passes will make it more difficult for us to catch up (with pay),” the chief said. “I certainly don’t expect us to be like Lebanon or Hanover, but we need to keep pace with the gap. We can’t let it keep spreading further apart.”