The Valley News has been selected to add two journalists — a photojournalist and a climate and environment reporter — to our newsroom through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Jim Kenyon: Norwich, Thetford should join forces under Norford Police Department

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/6/2021 9:46:23 PM
Modified: 2/6/2021 9:46:22 PM

As I see it, Norwich Police Chief Jennifer Frank is doing the town a favor by leaving after two years for a new job.

Frank’s departure to become police chief in Windsor gives Norwich an opportunity to rethink its approach to policing and save taxpayers some money.

Instead of rushing to hire a new chief, Norwich Selectboard members and Town Manager Herb Durfee should get on the phone to their counterparts in neighboring Thetford to talk about joining forces.

Two towns, one police department. One chief, not two. Far-fetched? Perhaps.

But I’d argue that both towns could benefit by forming what I’m dubbing the Norford Police Department. (The name isn’t original. There’s already a Norford Lake on the town line.)

Here’s what I picture:

The two towns establish a police commission to serve as the new department’s governing board. Each town would have three members, elected by voters in their respective communities. The police chief would report to the commission, much like a town manager answers to a Selectboard.

Roger Arnold, vice chairman of the Norwich Selectboard, reminded me that in 2000, the town considered disbanding its police department, which at the time was in disarray, and contracting with Hartford for services. Norwich ended up keeping its own force.

If Norwich and Thetford or any other towns are going to pool resources to “solve community problems, policing wouldn’t be my first place to start,” said Arnold, who listed affordable housing and solar projects as bigger priorities for collaboration.

That said, the militarization of police across the country since 9/11, along with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, has shown “it’s time to look at all things policing,” Arnold told me.

The commission could also handle complaints against police, including cases alleging excessive use of force. To enhance transparency and build public trust, all commission business would be conducted in public. (A journalist can dream, can’t he?)

After it gets off the ground, the commission could tackle long-range planning. Do two small Vermont towns need five patrol officers? Could they manage with fewer than their current allotment of seven cruisers? Why does Norwich have an unmarked cruiser? (If cops are trying to build trust within their community, sneaking around in a black sedan doesn’t help.)

The commission’s first job would be to hire a chief. Michael Evans, Thetford’s current chief, is a logical choice. He’s well-respected in Thetford, where he’s been chief since 2015, and has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in the Upper Valley.

Evans’ current annual salary of $76,000 a year would have to be bumped up, but the two towns would still save a few bucks by not having a Norwich chief’s position, which paid $84,000 last year.

“Mike is an excellent chief,” said state Rep. Jim Masland, whose district includes Thetford and Norwich. “He’s very much a practitioner of community policing. He’s good at working out problems without throwing the book at people.”

As for my proposed merger, Masland said the “idea has merit,” but a lot of details would have to be worked out before he could get behind it.

Evans shared some of Masland’s concerns about towns losing “local control” by turning over governance to a police commission. On the other hand, “there’s a lot of economies of scale that could happen,” resulting in potential savings for both communities, Evans said. “It’s worth a conversation.”

Thetford, which has about 2,600 residents, spent $310,000 on police in 2019. Norwich, with a population of roughly 3,400, spent $565,000 in 2019.

The two towns would have to figure out how each pays its fair share. Looking at how different multi-town school districts divvy up costs could be a starting point.

Between them, the two towns spend nearly $900,000 a year on policing. Would a joint department need to continue that level of spending?

Crime data might offer a clue.

In 2019, Thetford police handled two assault cases and Norwich just one, according to the most recent town reports. Norwich police reported more “fish and game” offenses (two) than robberies (one). Thetford had more people locked out of their homes or cars (four) than burglaries (three).

Statistics bear out that Norwich has “very little crime and very little violence,” Arnold said. “Our police department should reflect that reality.”

Hopefully, Norwich cops could learn something from their Thetford colleagues. For years, Norwich has suffered from overpolicing, particularly when it comes to traffic stops. (In case anyone is wondering, I haven’t been ticketed in either town.)

A new report, co-authored by University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino, reviewed traffic stops by 79 law enforcement agencies in the state between 2014 and 2019. (The study focused on trends in racial disparities in traffic stops, but also gave insight into how towns police their roads.)

Norwich didn’t participate in the study until 2019, the year Frank became chief. In 2019, Norwich cops made 711 traffic stops and issued 279 tickets. By comparison, Thetford, which provided data for 2015-2019, averaged 196 stops and 62 tickets annually.

Put another way: You’re almost four times likelier to get pulled over driving through Norwich than in Thetford. The odds of being ticketed in Norwich are also much higher, which raises another red flag.

Vermont allows towns to pocket much of the fine money collected from tickets that their cops write. To help balance its annual town budget, Norwich officials count on raising $10,000 or so a year in traffic fines. Thetford expects about $2,500.

Are traffic tickets written to improve public safety or to pad town coffers?

Sounds like a question for the Norford police commission.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy