Select Board Discusses Future of Hardwick Police Department

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Prospective scenarios for what the Hardwick Police Department (HPD) will look like in coming years were discussed at the only regular July select board meeting. A series of recent unfortunate events may have left HPD’s current level of service unsustainable, at least in the short term. 

As for long-term scenarios, the board discussed whether to providing police services to Hardwick and East Hardwick only. Town Manager Jon Jewett, Business Manager Casey Rowell, and HPD Chief Aaron Cochran presented a series of options.

Chief Cochran said that with its present numbers, the HPD will struggle to continue operating its third, or overnight, shift. An officer recently resigned, citing uncertainties about the department’s future, and two officers are away for deployment. Chief Cochran said he believes officers are worried about the “stability” of HPD and it is impacting department morale. He requested, but did not receive, permission from the select board to add one full-time officer.

“With four officers down, I need to know a direction,” Chief Cochran said. “Do I hire for the position the officer just resigned from, or are we leaving that open, leaving me four officers down?”

Town Manager Jon Jewett told the select board that with staffing as it is now, discussing whether to continue the current 24-hour coverage was moot. 

“If you’re down for four or three [officers], you’ll have to move ahead to eliminate that third shift. There won’t be anything for you [to decide],” he said. He added that the select board did not have any control over the situation because the officers “can’t work that many hours. They won’t physically be able to maintain” round-the-clock coverage.

Chief Cochran said that part-time officers cannot solve the problem because by statute their duties are limited. For certain situations, a full-time, Level 3 officer is required.

“I fear if we don’t [hire] we will lose other officers,” he said. He added that police officers prefer a highly stable work environment, free from worry over whether budget issues will eliminate their positions.

Board member Michael Deering asked whether the third shift would be lost without the hire, and Jewett said yes. Chief Cochran later reiterated that with the officer’s two-week notice of their departure on July 29, providing 24-hour service did not seem possible. Deering asked whether, with an additional hire and officers returning from deployment, HPD would be fully staffed. He also asked if HPD could provide policing to another town if requested. He was told yes. Deering said he believed that was the correct long-term solution. “We can’t not hire another officer,” he said, but declined to make a motion. 

The board considered whether HPD should continue with regional policing, as it has since 1980, or if it should focus locally. Rowell said that continuing at the current budgeted staffing levels would require regional policing. It was pointed out that there are only so many adjoining towns where that option would be possible.

Greensboro decided not to renew its contract with HPD, terminating a four-decades-long relationship with Hardwick. Chief Cochran had been in conversations with Woodbury, and even before the officer resigned, had viewed the arrangement as having little upside for HPD. Woodbury sought non-criminal, part-time policing, primarily for things like traffic enforcement that the county sheriff wouldn’t do.

With the additional resignation, Chief Cochran saw no path forward, as HPD will be stretched to its thinnest just by policing Hardwick and East Hardwick. He said, “another town” has been inquiring about contracting with Hardwick for policing services. While he did not say it explicitly, Wolcott is investigating multiple options for police services. 

Chief Cochran said prolonging the debate as to whether HPD is a regional or local department could jeopardize whether HPD was seen by the “other town” as a viable alternative solution for policing.

The board wanted to know about the third shift and whether a backup solution could be found. Chief Cochran said the Vermont State Police, who are also short-handed, go home at 2 a.m., and after that do not respond to any situation that isn’t life-threatening. Jewett said that he lives in East Montpelier, and the state police provide after-hours coverage there without any major incidents. Chief Cochran did not have a price for third-shift service from LCSD, but he said based on HPD’s costs, he did not believe having the sheriff fill in would not be less expensive. Sheriff Roger Marcoux is on vacation, and he will be contacted to get an estimate.

HPD, like all law enforcement agencies, is also facing a crisis of far fewer incoming recruits. COVID-19 is only partly to blame for that problem, Chief Cochran said, with the academy running at half-capacity in 2020 to ensure social distancing guidelines were met. But the field is drawing fewer applicants, he said. “The other part of [the problem] is nobody is coming into law enforcement. The number is way down,” he said. Chair Eric Remick said the “in the grand scheme” that fact might be an argument against preserving the strategy of policing other towns.

Board member Shari Cornish, who stated she believes the department should only police Hardwick and East Hardwick, said this was a decision that the public should make. “I do think the community needs to be able to weigh in,” she said. HPD represents roughly a third of the town budget. The cost difference between staffing to police only Hardwick and staffing for regional policing is around $250,000 — over a quarter of the department’s current budget. Vice chair Ceilidh Galloway Kane wanted to know about hiring a consultant to take a look at the scenarios and make recommendations. 

The board decided not to take official action at this time but plans to put the question to the community. Board members could not agree whether that should be done by vote or at a special meeting. The board does not meet again formally until August 5. The members discussed, but did not commit to setting a separate special meeting before the resigning officer departs HPD to address the matters of concern more thoroughly.