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Editorial: A Police Staffing Crisis in Hartford?

Having taken a vow of poverty during last winter’s budget season, the Hartford Selectboard is now feeling sufficiently flush to agree to add five officers to the Police Department by filling three vacancies and adding two new positions. Moreover, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg recently assured the board that he could easily find money to pay for the two new officers, whose jobs are not currently budgeted.

If voters feel whipsawed, it is entirely understandable. They were told before Town Meeting that a sharp rise in health insurance premiums combined with a declining grand list and new bond payments threatened budgetary catastrophe. This disaster that was averted only through the heroic efforts of the Selectboard, which switched insurance vendors, increased co-payments from staff members and made painful choices to reduce staffing levels throughout town departments.

Fast-forward to the third week of May, when the board, during a workshop session with law enforcement officials, suddenly decided that an increase in the drug trade, specifically opiates, justified a sharp increase in Police Department staffing levels.

“It sounds like we have a huge staffing crisis here. We have to find a way to fund it,” said Selectwoman Sandra Mariotti, who was elected to the board in March (and so perhaps did not receive the fiscal prudence memo from earlier in the year). Although the board took no formal vote, it gave its blessing to putting more boots on the ground, as staff reporter Jordan Cuddemi reported.

While there’s a widespread belief that the illicit drug trade has reached crisis proportions in Vermont, as Gov. Peter Shumlin demonstrated by devoting his entire State of the State speech to the subject this year, that doesn’t mean throwing money at the problem is going to make it go away. In fact, a number of questions arise in connection with Hartford’s move to add more officers.

First of all, what transpired in the drug trade between January and May that made increasing police staffing an issue that needed to be addressed immediately? The subject was discussed during budget deliberations, and one wonders why it was not resolved as part of that process.

Secondly, is there an argument for adding a trained narcotics investigator to the force in preference to a couple of more patrol officers? If the point is to arrest out-of-state drug dealers who are operating here, as opposed to addicts, wouldn’t a skillful detective prove more effective?

Third, there’s a growing consensus that law enforcement, while vital, is only one component of an effective drug-fighting strategy. Does the board contemplate supplementing the law enforcement effort by expending resources on treatment?

Finally, the board decided in January to scrap its one-year experiment with a public safety director and revert to the old administrative structure headed by a police chief, who is tentatively scheduled to be hired this summer. Wouldn’t it make sense to fill that job first and draw on the expertise of the person hired to analyze staffing levels and how resources are currently deployed before forging ahead with adding officers? This is not to mention that the new chief might prefer to have a decisive say in who gets hired, if indeed jobs are added.

None of this is to deny that drugs are becoming a serious problem in Hartford and elsewhere in Vermont. But acting with thoughtful deliberation in the midst of a crisis is a sign of mature leadership and rational judgment. Ultimately, it may make perfect sense to add some or all of the officers, but that decision should be preceded by a thorough examination of all the issues involved, with appropriate public participation.