Hartford to Hire Police Officers in Effort to Combat Opiate Trade

Hartford — As part of the first step to addressing a rise in drug activity, town officials have agreed to increase the number of boots on the ground.

Although it wasn’t part of a formal vote, the Selectboard at a workshop Tuesday night gave three law enforcement officials present the blessing to press forward and fill three existing vacancies at the Hartford Police Department, plus hire two additional officers.

“It sounds like we have a huge staffing crisis here,” Selectboard member Sandra Mariotti said. “We have to find a way to fund it.”

Where exactly the funds would come from to cover the salaries of the two additional officers wasn’t discussed Tuesday — the three vacancies are already funded positions — but Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said he could “easily” find money in the budget to fund the positions.

But it may not even need to come to that.

Selectman Alex DeFelice said by first filling the three vacant positions, less money will be spent out of the overtime budget. Then, by hiring two additional officers, even less overtime money will be expended.

“You ought to be able to save enough overtime ... to pay for the fourth officer,” DeFelice said, noting the town could be close to breaking even with covering the salaries of the two additional officers.

The Selectboard directed the town manager to work with police department staff to create a “plan” to detail what the financial impact of hiring two additional officers would be and where the money would specifically come from.

Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said it is likely that plan will be ready for board consumption in 30 days.

A main reason why the board pushed to give law enforcement officials — deputy chiefs Brad Vail and Lenny Roberts and Public Safety Director Steven Locke — the go-ahead to hire a total of five officers was because of the amount of time it takes from when an officer is hired to when he or she can actively patrol the town.

Rieseberg said officers often utilize the Hartford Police Department as a stepping stone in their careers, which contributes to vacancies in the department.

If an officer is hired that hasn’t received necessary accreditations, Vail said it takes nine months to a year for an officer to gain his or her certifications to be able to ride solo on a town police force.

Even if the department is able to hire five officers in a round of interviews that commences on Thursday, it is likely some would need to complete the training before they could begin patrolling.

Looking ahead, DeFelice said the salaries for the additional officers could be worked into the next fiscal year’s budget.

For what the town is confronting with drugs, Reiseberg said, it would be practical to hire three additional officers down the road, something DeFelice and Parker agreed with.

“We are concerned if we don’t deal with it, it will get out of hand and we will find ourselves behind the eight ball,” Parker said.

Selectman Chuck Wooster cautioned the board to remember that staffing levels in other town departments are low and that the town is faced with a tight budget due to health insurance premiums and other uncontrollable factors.

“This needs to be an organized and balanced strategy,” Wooster said.

Another stride made Tuesday night in combating a rise in opiate drugs such as heroin and prescription painkillers was the prospect of adding a police K-9 unit to the force.

“I think it would be great,” Mariotti said.

There is a cost associated with training and maintaining a K-9 and it would also impact staffing levels as an officer would need to complete a training course with the K-9, meaning the department would lose a patrolman for a period of time.

“It is all about that, we can’t afford to lose the guy off the street,” Locke said. “We are struggling to fulfill Mrs. Jones’ 911 call.”

Town officials hope that by increasing the staff size of the police department, more can be done to curb the escalating drug problem in Hartford.

Detective Chris Aher said Tuesday night that the department is averaging eight to 12 heroin arrests a month and has currently arrested roughly 80 people in 2014 on drug-related charges.

“That is 80 to 100 arrests to date and we are in May,” Aher said, noting that at this rate the department could reel in 300 to 400 drug arrests this year, compared to last year’s 206 drug arrests.

There is a new type of drug dealer in town, which is complicating matters and increasing the amount of heroin and prescription painkillers in the area.

The “capitalist,” as Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen put it, is largely contributing to the rise.

Kainen said those drug dealers are looking to make money and will go to extreme lengths to do so, versus the “addict” from 20 years ago who “got enough for him and a couple of others.”

“Now you have real bad people,” Kainen said. “They aren’t using the stuff” but rather are “pushing it” throughout the town.

Vail said that in 2007, there was one heroin arrest in Hartford, versus 17 in 2013, noting that number has already increased this year and that on a “daily basis” the department is receiving complains of needles in town parks.

“That is kind of sad,” Deputy Chief Roberts said, noting needles were found on the grounds of White River School recently.

Vail said larceny and theft cases are also on the rise, and noted that those types of offenses go hand-in-hand with drug related offenses.

The school resource officer is one of the three vacant positions, the other two being a patrol sergeant and patrol officer.

Hartford School District Director of Counseling Services Scott Farnsworth applauded the Selectboard for taking up the issue, not ing that “we need to keep talking.”

“It is all about first steps, us coming together,” Farnsworth said.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.