A bill making its way through the Legislature has some part-time law enforcement officers upset, but supporters say the measure is necessary to ensure those who have the greatest power are well trained to use that power.
The chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Bill Lippert of Hinesburg, seeks to eliminate the definitions “full-time” and “part-time” officers in a section of the law that details the amount of training certified police must get.
Instead, Lippert proposes replacing that with three levels that define an officer’s legal scope of duty and the required training for each level.
Lippert said current law defines officers as full time, requiring one set of training requirements, or part time, which requires a lesser number of hours and requirements. But both officers have full legal authority under the law in Vermont. The only difference is the number of hours they work in a week.
“Full time and part time — it’s a misnomer,” Lippert said. “It turns out that part time means they train to a lesser degree. Something about that really doesn’t make sense. It’s really about the level of training they get.”
Most departments in the state use part-time officers to fill shifts, cover vacations and illnesses, and in other ways.
And constables may be the only law enforcement officer in some smaller towns.
Si Loomis is first constable in Castleton and is also president of the Vermont Constables’ Association, which is following this legislation closely and offering input.
“Some of the backbone of the law enforcement in your small towns is your part-time officers,” Loomis said. “There are some really good part-time officers.”
Loomis knows. He’s been constable for 42 years. Many of those years he was also employed by larger departments as a regular officer.
Loomis and other part-timers are concerned what the legislation might turn their jobs into.
Already, towns can put limits on a constable’s duties and in some towns the constable is limited to policing unruly meetings or generating speeding ticket revenue.
But in many small towns, a constable is the first line of defense, investigating assaults, robberies and crashes, while assisting state police and other agencies in more serious cases.
Because they live in the communities they serve, often a constable might be the first officer at the scene and can help diffuse a situation while a state trooper or other backup is still many minutes away.
Lippert said the aim isn’t to create hardship for part-time police officers and constables, but to ensure that all law enforcement officers are well trained for the job at hand.
“We give law enforcement tremendous power — and rightly so — and we ask them to put themselves in the line of fire, and we grant them the right to use lethal force and deprive our citizens of their personal liberty,” Lippert said. “In turn, I think we have every right to expect that when law enforcement officers are using the authority we are granting them that they have the full appropriate training to be able to use that authority.”
That discussion has been underway for a while.
Loomis has been part of the discussion with the Criminal Justice Training Council.
Rick Gauthier, the council’s executive director, said the discussion had been ongoing and the legislation was unexpected.
“We had already been working on this, but we were probably looking at another year to two years,” Gauthier said. “When it was introduced, it caught us by surprise, but it didn’t catch us flat-footed. When Rep. Lippert introduced the bill, we were able to react pretty quickly.”
Gauthier said there has been concern for a while about the disparate levels of training between full- and part-time officers yet those officers have the same levels of law enforcement authority.
Currently, the focus of the bill is to restrict the scope of practice for lesser-trained officers, which is much better than the original idea.
“The original plan was to get rid of part-time officers completely,” Gauthier said. “That was an issue.”
Lippert admits that was a bad idea, but he says it got people’s attention and started the conversation.
The focus of the bill is the three levels.
A Level 1 officer would be limited to minimal tasks: transport of suspects, directing traffic, vehicle escorts, security details. Level 3 would be the current full-time officers with full police powers.
Level 2, however, is where the confusions and concern comes in.
“What we’re calling Level 2, is essentially the current part-time certification program,” Gauthier said. “The restrictions were not defined in the bill. It was thought the (Criminal Justice Training Council) would come up with a scope of practice. That might need to be adjusted.”
The bill has made its way through the House and is now in the Senate, and Lippert hopes one other issue can be rectified.
Some of the criticism and concern with the bill has come from the lack of a grandfather clause for current part-time officers and constables.
Current part-timers would be grandfathered in at Level 2, and only the new hires would be subject to the new law.
That clause was in the original bill, Lippert said, but the bill was significantly changed in the House Government Operations Committee and Lippert would like to see that put back in.
“We’re in a transitional period and one of the things you try not to do is impinge on somebody’s current employment,” Lippert said. “I’m hopeful they’ll make that change in the Senate.”
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