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Jim Kenyon: Chief concerns in the future of Norwich’s 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: 4/20/2021 10:05:29 PM
Modified: 4/20/2021 10:05:27 PM

In a town where police handled as many cases last year for assault (two) that it did for littering, Norwich can probably take its time in hiring a new police chief, if it needs one at all.

Despite what some Norwich residents want to believe, crime is not a problem in one of Vermont’s richest communities.

Some residents and second-home owners like that Norwich police provide free “property checks” when they’re away. But with only five burglaries reported last year, I’m not sure the need is all that great. If homeowners are really that worried about their family silver being snatched, they should hire a private security detail instead of sticking taxpayers with the bill.

Last Wednesday, the Norwich Selectboard held a public hearing via Zoom on the town’s policing needs.

With Chief Jennifer Frank’s departure last month to take the helm in Windsor, some board members and residents want to hold off on hiring her replacement until the town can figure out what it wants its police force to look like moving forward.

Others, including Town Manager Herb Durfee, are eager to get back to business as usual. Which in Norwich mostly means writing a lot of traffic tickets. Last year, cops handed out 342 citations and 560 warnings — an average of nearly three a day. (In case anyone is wondering, I wasn’t among those who were nabbed.)

To hire a chief now or not is shaping up as an interesting battle of wills. At the public hearing, resident Bob Stevens was among those who were opposed to cutting back the size of the police department, which includes a chief and three full-time officers.

Stevens, a playwright and former TV writer, brought up that Norwich doesn’t have an officer on-duty after midnight while just down the road in Hartford, cops work 24/7.

But retired physician Paul Manganiello reminded people that the “reality is we will never get to zero crime.” Norwich — or any community for that matter —could station an armed cop at the end of every driveway and bad things could still happen.

In a letter to the Selecboard, a group of seven residents emphasized that Norwich’s allocation to social service programs — currently $53,000 — pales in comparison to the town’s $600,000 annual police budget.

By my math, Norwich, population 3,400, is spending about $175 per resident on cops and $16 per resident on social services.

In another letter to the board, resident Jon Felde wrote that Norwich gave a measly (my word, not his) $2,500 to Headrest, a Lebanon-based nonprofit geared toward helping people who are battling substance use. “Surely we can do more given the scope of the problem of addiction,” Felde wrote.

At the Zoom meeting, Felde added, “Allocating resources to social services can make communities safer.”

Selectboard Chairman Roger Arnold deserves kudos for giving police reform a public airing. “This is an opportunity for the community to lead and public officials to listen,” he told me.

Although the idea didn’t gain traction when I brought it up earlier this year, I still think Norwich and neighboring Thetford should consider joining police forces, sharing a chief and officers.

In the most recent annual Town Report, Norwich cops wanted the public to know that they have a “strong commitment to community policing.”

Liz Blum, a longtime resident and former board member, is among those questioning what that means. If it’s about building public trust, then having the police chief sneak around town in an unmarked cruiser is a strange way to go about it, she said.

Norwich police can stage all the coffee-with-a-cop sessions that it wants, but it still doesn’t change that with their broad arrest powers, they’re “criminalizing people,” Blum told me when I called her Tuesday.

On a topic that’s long overdue for public debate, some Norwich residents are questioning why police need to be armed during social visits to schools.

In talking with Durfee, I mentioned seeing Frank at an elementary school basketball game with her Glock — and its 17 rounds — strapped to her waist. Sidearms are part of a police officer’s uniform, Durfee said.

If that’s the case, then maybe cops should stop “handing out ice cream cones to kids and showing up at end-of-school-year picnics with their guns,” Blum said. “It’s not part of their job description.”

In the police chief hiring debate, Durfee holds all the cards. In Vermont, the town manager — not the Selectboard — is responsible for hiring department heads.

With the application deadline having passed, the town has a half-dozen candidates. While the law enforcement community wasn’t “breaking down the doors” for the opportunity work in Norwich, the applicant pool includes “well-qualified people,” Durfee said.

He’s planning on forming a committee of several townspeople, Selectboard members and a police department representative to help review applications as he tries to balance what he’s hearing from residents with the “policing needs of the community.”

But delaying the hiring until Norwich sorts through issues, including whether whether cops should bring their guns to school, would be a mistake, Durfee argued. “We’re going to have a better community discussion with a police chief on board,” he said.

Durfee hopes to have a new chief in place by early June. That sounds like wishful thinking. Particularly when the money — the budgeted salary is $87,000 — isn’t overwhelming and candidates who have done their homework might be reluctant to come to a town that’s deeply divided over what it wants for policing.

The more I think about it, the odds of Norwich finding a police chief anytime soon that residents can agree upon seem low.

But that’s OK. A town that had more fireworks violations (two) than stolen vehicles (one) last year can afford to wait.

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




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