House and Senate endorse bill to eliminate part-time law enforcement positions

MONTPELIER -- A bill to revamp policing in Vermont cleared the Legislature on Thursday and is headed to the governor's desk for a signature.

The bill eliminates part-time police officers in an attempt to reform a system lawmakers said made no sense.

In Vermont, part-time police officers have significantly less training (four-and-a-half weeks) but the same powers as full-time officers, who attend a 16-week residential academy.

"It has been bogus for years and everybody in law enforcement knows that," said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the sponsor of H.225.

The bill revamps the system by creating three levels of police officers, each with different levels of training and corresponding authority.

"I think it's appropriate that if you have full law enforcement authority that you have a corresponding level of training," Lippert said.

Under the new system, level-three officers will have full police authority. Level-two officers will be able to investigate 21 categories of incidents, ranging from the humane treatment of animals to riots.

Level one officers' powers are limited to transportation, security, vehicle escort and traffic control, although they, as well as level-two officers, can respond to certain emergencies while calling another officer to take over the situation.

Current part-time officers would become level-two officers, the bill says.

State law enforcement officials for years have been working on creating exactly this type of tiered system, and piggybacked on Lippert's bill to make it happen, said Criminal Justice Training Council Executive Director Rick Gauthier, a former Bennington Police chief.

Part-time police routinely violate the 32-hour-a-week cap, Gauthier said. Level-two officers under the new system will be able to handle 70 percent to 80 percent of the types of calls local departments receive on a regular basis, he said.

"We're trying to find that balance between restricting the scope and trying to provide service to the communities," Gauthier said.

Several local police chiefs oppose the new system, saying they depend on part-time officers, especially because they don't have to pay them benefits.

Among the most vocal opponents is Lippert's local police chief, Frank Koss of the Hinesburg Police Department.

"This is going to have an impact on the state police," Koss said. State troopers will be called more frequently to back up level two officers, he said.

Hinesburg has five full-time officers and 40 hours of part-time work split between several officers, Koss said. He will have a full-time officer on call when part-timers are working, in case they need backup, Koss said. That could fall on the Vermont State Police's shoulders.

The chief said he would likely convert the 40 hours of part-time work to one full-time officer, but that will cost at least $50,000 extra, he said, because of higher pay and benefits.

Lippert said he underestimated the response his bill would elicit from his local chief.

"I regret that there might be a more difficult transition in our own community than I had hoped," Lippert said.

Slow change is the best way to change ingrained practices, Lippert said. He wanted the bill to grandfather part-timers into the system with full authority.

"I'm disappointed that this doesn't sufficiently grandfather part-time officers," Lippert said.

Some chiefs asked for proof that there are problems with part-time officers before they buy the argument for a new system. Lippert said lawmakers should not wait for a problem to happen before changing a system that doesn't make sense.


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