Hartford residents push board to reexamine police budget

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2020 10:24:21 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 10:24:08 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — As national conversations over police budgets and spending continue, some Hartford residents are questioning how their own police department could more effectively respond to calls that don’t involve crimes, particularly those involving mental health crises.

The discussion came as part of an annual budget presentation that Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten made to the Selectboard Thursday night. In the meeting, Kasten proposed a $3.3 million budget for fiscal year 2022, which is a slight decrease from the current budget.

The money would cover basic police operations, including step increases in police salaries to remain competitive with neighboring departments, Kasten said during the presentation. He said in an interview Friday that he was able to keep the budget flat by making small reductions and by delaying some programs that the department had planned to implement this year.

During the presentation, Kasten also gave the board and viewers watching by video conference an overview of police calls, showing that calls for service have increased over the past five years. Additionally, he gave viewers a breakdown of the types of medical calls police responded to in 2020, with mental health-related medical calls surpassing all other categories at 39 total this year.

“I know there’s been a lot of discussion about medical and mental health issues and what are the police involved in,” Kasten added.

In recent months activists across the country — as well as locally — have been calling to redirect police funding toward social programs.

The most recent example came earlier this week in Lebanon when the Democratic Socialists of America presented a plan to reduce the police department budget and use the funds for social service programs.

The Lebanon City Council raised questions about the proposal and some councilors said they couldn’t support it.

Kasten’s presentation for Hartford — and particularly the medical calls — prompted questions from Selectboard members and residents about the role that police and a state-funded social worker within the department play in responding to them.

“My biggest concern is why you guys are making so many mental health service calls and yet there’s a police social worker, working remotely,” Wilder resident Samantha Shafer said at the meeting.

The position allows a Hartford-based social worker to respond to some calls that might require a mental health expert.

At other times, police will defer mental health cases to the social worker, Kasten said. He added that the decision to send a social worker out on an emergency call is often left up to 911 dispatchers.

“I know it’s not a good answer,” Kasten said, adding that it’s typical in towns across the country for police to respond to mental health crises calls when someone might be in danger.

But Shafer, who said she has had personal experience with police responding to a mental health crisis, said she would have preferred a social worker at the scene, calling the decision not to send a mental health professional a “lapse.”

“It really makes me curious, based on my experience with this lapse, how many other people in Hartford are experiencing this lapse,” she said.

Selectboard member Alicia Barrow raised similar questions, asking how often a social worker will respond with police and whether every call that requires a mental health specialist gets a response from a person with that expertise.

“It sounds like she — or that position — is needed more frequently,” Barrow said.

The discussion follows a recent effort by the Hartford Selectboard to consider creating a wellness coordinator position within Town Hall. Like the social worker, the wellness coordinator could respond to calls from people experiencing mental health crises, homelessness and other social issues, and give them access to resources.

The position is one Hartford has been considering for years, and the board has already approved some funding for it over the last two years.

Board members Kim Souza and Emma Behrens are currently drafting a job description for the position, and plan to have a meeting with Kasten and other board members to discuss the position in the near future, Souza said in an interview Friday.

A Valley News analysis in June of six police departments in the Upper Valley found that Hartford, which had 23 full-time officers and the social worker, had seen its budget increase by 52% in the past decade.

The Hartford Police Department’s share of general fund spending also increased in that time from 18.1% to 19.6%.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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