Vermont’s approach to law enforcement is shifting in the midst of severe staffing shortages, both within the Vermont State Police and also most local police departments across the state.
Vermont State Police officials said they have about 48 vacancies out of 333 total sworn positions. Across the state, 51 of 70 other law enforcement agencies said they are also trying to fill positions.
In addition, the Vermont State Police’s two public safety dispatch centers are also having trouble managing call volumes — an issue expected to worsen in the coming months, the agency announced this week.
To ensure these dispatch centers can do their jobs, the Department of Public Safety is rethinking its system for call management and communications, according to a Wednesday press release.
The Vermont State Police has also hired its first-ever civilian recruiting specialist, Dale Nelson. He started work just before Memorial Day at the state police Office of Professional Development, a Pittsford-based unit responsible for attracting new state troopers.
The Vermont Police Academy, which trains all of Vermont’s police officers, eliminated its limits on class enrollment size a little over a year ago. The change, in part, was meant to help deal with the staff shortage, said Christopher Brickell, deputy director of the police academy.
The academy also changed its physical fitness requirements and is re-evaluating its written entrance exam. A new written exam is under development, but passing a written test has not been a requirement for entering the academy for nearly a year.
The problem at hand
Police statewide and nationwide have been subject to increased public scrutiny since the Black Lives Matter movement took hold in the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
“Law enforcement has it very tough and it's been scrutinized over the last couple of years, obviously, for good reason,” said Lt. Thomas Mozzer, who oversees Nelson’s recruiting team. “But the majority of our officers throughout the country are well trained and decent, and we're looking for more of those.”
“It's going to be an uphill battle,” Mozzer said. “We've had a couple bad years and I think it can only get better at this point.”
However, Hillary Rich, legal fellow at the ACLU of Vermont, believes Vermonters should not view police staffing shortages as a detriment to public safety, or equate public safety with highly funded or highly staffed police departments.
“Although crime has real impacts on our communities, and especially our most vulnerable community members, there's little evidence that police keep us safer,” she said.
Besides filling law enforcement vacancies, Vermont should invest in other issues involving public safety, such as health care, affordable housing and education, she said.
Rich looks to these public safety approaches, in part, because police response to violent crime occurs after the violence happens, rather than preventing it from happening in the first place.
“To the extent that public perception about policing is changing, that's partly because more and more people are simply realizing that there are better ways of protecting our communities to emphasize services and resources that aren't police-based,” she said.
State Police Capt. Teresa Randall, who helped to develop the idea of hiring a recruiter, believes Covid-19 and a nationwide labor shortage — as well as the political climate challenging police’s reputation — are contributing to the shortage of new police applicants.
“It's a mixture of the climate out there and the workforce that's out there as well,” she said. “Between the two of them, it's made recruitment really difficult.”
The Vermont State Police decided to hire a civilian recruiter because internally they lacked expertise in marketing, public relations and media, all tools that they wanted to use. In addition, they needed their sworn troopers elsewhere, Randall said, as the force faces the highest vacancy rate she’s seen in 20 years.
Mozzer, who’s been with the Vermont State Police for 22 years, said he’s never seen this many vacancies, either. Normally the vacancy rate ranges between 15 and 30 officers, and the current rate is twice as high.
“To be honest with you, I don't think it's over,” Mozzer said. “I think between retirements and attrition over the next couple of months, we're going to fall above 50.”
What’s more, police departments around the Northeast have the same problem, and a number of federal agencies are competing for workers, too.
“Like the FBI, or ICE, or Border Patrol, if they're short, they're gonna hire hundreds and hundreds of applicants,” Mozzer said. “Those are potential Vermont State Police applicants.”
The recruiting plan
With all that in mind, Nelson said establishing a palatable image and brand for police will be a crucial component of his work.
“As we all know, in the past two years, it's been tough for law enforcement,” Nelson said. “Not just here in Vermont, but across the country, staffing numbers are down.”
Nelson said he hopes to strike a balance between showcasing the human side of police officers to the public, while conveying a sense that the job isn’t easy and that Vermont is looking for the most qualified applicants.
“You have to understand that the foundation of policing is to protect those who can't protect themselves, and that's why a lot of us get into this profession, in our younger lives,” Mozzer said. “That's why I got into it.”
Still, Rich at the ACLU said she believes there’s a growing awareness that police do not solve all of society's problems, and that law enforcement’s pushback on efforts to end qualified immunity in Vermont do not demonstrate responsible policing.
“Insulating law enforcement from public accountability is not the way to build trust or repair reputations or serve our communities,” she said. “To state the obvious, if more oversight and accountability are actually deterring some people from becoming law enforcement officers, then we don't want those people policing our communities in the first place.”
Additionally, Rich contended police need to demonstrate improvements in culture and practices if they want to succeed in attracting high-quality applicants, who might be dissuaded by racial profiling and unjust uses of force.
A new approach to call management
The Vermont Department of Public Safety operates two state-run police dispatch centers to serve 162 public safety agencies, which aim to alleviate strains on understaffed police departments throughout the state.
However, the dispatch centers themselves are running short on staff and are unable to handle the normal call volumes. Their bandwidth is expected to worsen in coming months, as call volumes often expand in summer, and more staff members are expected to leave.
These centers, located in Westminster and Williston, are known as 911 Public Safety Answering Points. They currently operate around the clock throughout the year for emergency and non-emergency calls for police, fire and emergency medical services. Both locations, especially Westminster, suffer from staffing issues, according to the Department of Public Safety.
In an effort to ensure these dispatch centers can manage their primary roles, the department is reworking the system in the next two weeks, in part by redirecting certain communications.
For instance, local police agencies will be asked to field some calls themselves, which otherwise would have gone to the dispatch centers. The state also plans to pass off related calls to fire and EMS agencies.
The state is also asking police agencies to rely on a computer-aided dispatch system for routing inquiries, so they don’t need direct assistance from a dispatcher. More business calls from the public will also be routed to automated phone attendants in the coming weeks.
Plans and goals for the new recruiter
Nelson, the new recruiter, grew up on a dairy farm in Derby and holds a bachelor’s degree in film and a master’s in entertainment business from Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida.
He works with the Vermont State Police on videography, marketing and social media.
Nelson has traveled around the state to profile troopers, promote the work of special teams and conduct ride-alongs on patrol shifts. He also takes part in career fairs and ad campaigns, among other more traditional recruiting efforts.
He is also involved in boosting the Vermont State Police presence on TikTok, a platform that’s used by many young people.
“Moving forward, we want to keep collecting and building content, and with a steady supply of content to put out, and establish our brand in that way, where through this marketing, we're able to bring in more applicants to the agency,” he said.
Nelson wants to follow a trooper around for a day from start to finish, including their home life, to show the serious component of the job as well as the human side of the trooper. He also plans to partner with some military agencies and the National Guard, so they can benefit from his work, too.
He said teamwork is everything when it comes to establishing the intended image and addressing the vacancy issue head on.
“It's not intimidating. I see it as a challenge,” Nelson said. “I work with a great group of people. We bounce ideas off each other all day long. I look to them as a lifeline. When I am stumped on something, we make decisions as a group, as a whole, and we move as a unit.”
Revised standards for entry into the profession
The Vermont Police Academy recently shifted several aspects of its expectations for entry, partly in response to the staff shortages facing Vermont’s law enforcement agencies.
“In the law enforcement crisis that is evident now, and agencies having such a difficult time of recruiting and keeping people, we've opened it up so that we do not have a cap (on enrollment) and we're taking anybody that they can send us,” Brickell said.
The academy’s current class has 42 recruits, which is possible because the class-size limit was eliminated. Lifting the cap was an effort by the Vermont Criminal Justice Council to restabilize policing efforts and employment.
Additionally, the council revised the entrance tests for fairness and relevance to recent recruits, Brickell said.
“Historically, a lot of agencies have claimed to have difficulty with some of the recruits not being able to pass the run in time, so there is a working group of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council that is looking at the entrance test and the entrance standards for getting into the academy,” he said.
The physical portion of the entrance requirement had used traditional Cooper standards, including a 1.5-mile run and a number of situps and pushups; in January, it shifted to a 2,000-meter rowing test.
And since last July, applicants for the police academy haven’t had to take a written exam.
“They have put the written test on hold while they research a more evidence-based and a more even test for everyone to take, so that it doesn't leave some people out of the process,” Brickell said.
The working group is negotiating a contract with a vendor to provide an up-to-date written test that has fewer “disparate outcomes,” in an effort to mitigate higher-than-expected failure rates, he said.
“They know that it's imperative that the sooner we get a test, the better, but they're not rushing it because they want to get it right,” Brickell said. “That's more important than hurrying up and getting tests that we know may have the same problematic results.”
There is no federal or national minimum standard for entry into policing. Each state has the power to set its own standards, as deemed appropriate. The Vermont Police Academy runs two full-time sessions per year, each 18 weeks long.
“Sometimes you'll hear people say, ‘The academy is lowering the standard,’ and we're not lowering the standard,” Brickell said. “We're changing it and we're looking for a more realistic standard for people getting into the academy and trying to make it (so) the options for law enforcement agencies are greater for them to recruit the people that they need.”
As for styles of policing, the academy aims to train officers to be responsive to their communities, with an emphasis on mental health training and de-escalation training, among other ways to avoid uses of force, he said.
“Law enforcement as a whole is very receptive,” Brickell said. “They know that change is already here and that there are higher expectations of police, and communities that have been underserved for history have to really have their voices heard.”
Brickell hopes police officer staffing will return to normal levels.
“This is such a multifaceted profession,” he said. “I think the public expects law enforcement services, and they need public safety in their communities. So this is one of the things where, you know, clearly the need for change has to happen, but at the same time, I think that communities need to look at the job that law enforcement has, and try to understand.”
Additional mitigation strategies at the local level
Several local agencies, such as the Shelburne and Springfield police departments, have enlisted staffing assistance from the Vermont State Police at certain hours, because they were severely understaffed.
Springfield reached out to Vermont State Police about two and a half months ago because the staff shortage had become critical, said Springfield Police Chief Mark Fountain.
“I was not going to have enough officers to be able to continue offering services 24/7, physically having somebody on duty 24 hours a day,” Fountain said.
Springfield police now have at least one officer on duty from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. At all other hours, Vermont State Police handle that community’s emergency calls — and only emergency calls.
Fountain has been a police officer for almost 38 years, 32 of them in Springfield. “I have never seen things so bad,” he said. “Not to this level.”
Fountain said he noticed a trend affecting the public’s view of law enforcement as a profession before Floyd’s murder in May 2020. Other prominent incidents deepened the reputation issue.
“The net effect is that it's become incredibly difficult to try to attract qualified applicants to show interest in working in the law enforcement profession,” Fountain said.
Springfield began offering hiring bonuses as a recruiting tool, though state police have not taken that step.
“It's no grand secret,” Fountain said. “Anybody that's working in the field, whether you're a dispatcher or you're an officer, everyone knows that these are very, very difficult times.”
Fountain uses the Springfield Police Department’s Facebook page to promote community-building efforts, such as “Coffee With A Cop” to reward kids for doing good deeds.
He also introduced a school mentorship program, encouraging officers to have lunch with kids to strengthen relationships with young people in Springfield.
“The presence of law enforcement, in any community, is vital in maintaining order,” Fountain said. “But more importantly, the safety of citizens.”
However, Rich, of the ACLU, said community-building campaigns will not solve the reputation issue; that will come by committing to equitable policing practices, accountability and transparency, she said.
“I would be more interested in seeing law enforcement work to improve their reputation by improving their actual practices,” she said. “(Vermonters) don't just want to have a doughnut with their local police officer; they want to know that they are being served in their communities.”
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