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Editorial: Hartford Police Chief Decision; Public Discussion Absent

Last March, Hartford voters elected to the Selectboard a slate of three candidates pledged above all to transparency in government. Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn 10 months later that the town is quietly considering a major change in the way the police department is administered without any apparent attempt to solicit the opinion of residents.

As staff writer Jon Wolper reported in the Sunday Valley News, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg is strongly considering creating the new position of public safety director, who would administer both the police and fire departments. This is being pitched primarily as a way to save money in tight budget times, and it also may have something to do with the fact that a search for a successor to Police Chief Glenn Cutting, who retired in March, was unsuccessful. Fire Chief Steve Locke is apparently the in-house favorite to fill both roles if the change is made.

The context, of course, is that Hartford police have been accused on three separate occasions in recent years of using excessive force. Although all the officers involved have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing, a civil suit in one of those incidents is still pending. In any case, it seemed obvious to many people at the time that, at a minimum, the officers involved exercised poor judgment in all three instances, and that training and supervision needed to be strengthened.

As town manager, Rieseberg has sole authority to decide how the department will be administered, but apparently the Selectboard has discussed the proposed change, which Vice Chairman F.X. Flinn told Wolper is “definitely happening.”

OK, but we would note that Flinn was among the three successful “transparency” candidates and told Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon last April that “people need an opportunity for their voices to be heard” on the subject of what kind of policing they want and what qualities they would like in a new police chief. To our knowledge, no such public forum has been provided.

This is not to say that making the change is a bad idea. It may make a lot of sense. But it’s worth noting that only two communities in Vermont, Bennington and Barre, have adopted this structure, and each in response to a specific set of circumstances that argued for the change.

Cutting himself expressed doubts to Wolper that a single administrator overseeing both fire and police would be able to stay on top of things in a 22-person police force that handles 10,000 cases a year.

We have that question, too, especially because the department has been in such turmoil for the past few years. The town needs to rebuild confidence that interactions between police and public will be respectful and that officers will exercise appropriate verbal and physical restraint. What’s needed now is not a caretaker, but a respected leader who is a forceful advocate for sensible and sensitive community policing — something that might argue strongly in favor of a candidate with a background in law enforcement.

But apart from the merits, shouldn’t there be some community discussion? As Cutting said, “To not have a police chief is one thing, but it should be discussed, it should be public.” Or as Flinn said when he was running for Selectboard, “I think there are a lot of things we can do to stimulate citizen engagement.”

CORRECTION

This editorial has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Thursday, Jan. 10 edition of the Valley News:

The Hartford Police Department has 22 authorized police positions. A story in the Sunday Valley News and an editorial on Tuesday misstated the total number of sworn positions.