BARRE — Police Chief Tim Bombardier told city councilors Tuesday night he isn’t putting his officers in harm’s way to break up basketball games or respond to other complaints of “group swarming” associated with the COVID-19 crisis.
Though that could change in the aftermath of a conversation Bombardier said he and other police chiefs plan to have with Attorney General T.J. Donovan today, the absence of clarity in a series of recent directives don’t have him second-guessing his decision to refer those calling with complaints to file them with the online portal Donovan created.
Bombardier said the health of his officers and their continued ability to respond to real emergencies is an objective that overrides attempting to respond to the “convoluted” collection of “mixed messages” that have some people flagging others’ behavior with respect to Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.
Bombardier said he appreciates the importance of the order, but at a time when his department is operating in emergency mode, nudging people toward compliance is an unnecessary risk for an ill-defined end.
“You have to look at where we’re going and what our primary function is as law enforcement,” he said. “Are we the ‘stay-at-home police,’ or do we really need to be there to respond to those serious emergency situations, those acts of violence?”
Bombardier said he is operating under the latter assumption, which requires his officers remain healthy.
It’s why, Bombardier said, he is no longer sending an officer to every call in a city that is four square miles, or pulling over motorists with expired registrations.
“We have backed away from that for this period of time, and we’re dealing with immediate responses for life safety events,” Bombardier said, ticking off a list that includes domestic assault, robberies, car crashes with injuries, burglaries and other felonies.
“Our goal is to reduce face-to-face contact with people,” he explained.
The strategy, Bombardier said, improves the changes officers will steer clear of the virus and remain able to respond to serious calls, not dealing with what at worst would be a misdemeanor and that only after attempts to obtain voluntary compliance fails.
“We’re not not seeing parties of 50 or 60 people,” he said. “We’re seeing a handful of kids playing basketball on a basketball court, or we’re seeing a handful of individuals outside their apartment building smoking and joking. I don’t think we need to be the ‘stay-at-home police’ for those groups at this time.”
Bombardier said his strong preference is to avoid unnecessary contact between his officers and those whose outdoor activities might make some uncomfortable.
“I like the idea that we trust people to make good choices and do the right thing,” he said, suggesting the vast majority of people do just that.
Bombardier said he was hoping to receive better direction from Donovan during today’s a 10 a.m. meeting.