BARRE — The Washington County Sheriff’s Department has had to turn down some transports for those in custody and has handed over screening at the courthouse in Barre due to staffing issues.
A state official said security coverage at the courthouse has been an issue in multiple counties in the state to the point where some courts might have to cut the hours they are open.
Sheriff Samuel Hill said he’s had some deputies either retire or move on to other work and he hasn’t been able to replace them. Hill said he has five part-time positions open.
Sheriff’s departments typically have contracts for traffic control at construction sites and they are mandated to transport those in custody to and from court, and to serve legal paperwork, in addition to contracts for security screening at courthouses. But the shortage of deputies, who are usually the ones who fulfill the contracts, has forced Hill to cut screening services and trim his department’s availability for other duties.
He said people looking to fill those positions need proper training through the Criminal Justice Training Council.
“Training to get certified is just so unwieldy time-wise most people just don’t have the time to do it,” he said. “They have a job or a family or something.”
Hill said the Vermont Police Academy recently canceled a training for part-time officers because there weren’t enough candidates who were going to attend. He said the training needed now to become certified as a part-time officer is much longer than the week it took when he started in 1984. Officers today are much better trained now than they were in the 1980s, he added.
Because of the lack of staff Hill said he and other higher ups in his department have had to be on the road more transporting those in custody to and from court. That added road time means he passes off much of the administrative work needed to run the department.
“We do it in between. We answer emails or fill out our grant paperwork or do our budget work, whatever we do in between whatever else we’re doing,” he said.
But he’s still had to tell the court he can’t do transports on certain days because he lacks the deputies.That shortage also forced him to completely give up security screening at the Washington County courthouse. There are usually two deputies at the entrance to the courthouse: one working the scanner and the other with the handheld metal detector. For the past year-plus Michael Stevens, the former Barre Town police chief and now a deputy with Lamoille County, has been doing screening at the courthouse along with a Washington County deputy.
Patricia Gabel, the state court administrator, said there have been challenges statewide with having sheriff’s departments covering the courts. Gabel said the Legislature gives the court system a certain amount of money for sheriff contracts for security and transporting and it’s not enough for some counties.
Years ago she said the Windham County Sheriff’s Department stopped working security for the court system because the department felt it wasn’t getting paid enough to do so. Gabel said the court now contracts with a private security firm for that county. She said the sheriff’s department in Bennington County also wants to be paid more but the money isn’t there so the hours the court is opened there have been reduced.
She said the sheriff’s department in Orleans County is experiencing the same recruiting issues as Washington County. Lamoille County deputies have had to step in and help in Orleans County as well, but Gabel said sending those deputies to Washington and Orleans Counties is not sustainable because it will eat up the available funds due to having to pay for things like mileage for the Lamoille deputies.
The required training can keep some candidates from even getting into the pool of available deputies.
Hill said there’s a three-phase process to become a part-time officer and the first phase involves a two-week training course at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsfield. After that the officer is provisionally certified so they can work with another officer while continuing training. The next phase involves more specific training on things such as how to properly use a baton or process a drunk driver and Hill said that process can take over three weeks.
The third phase involves working with a field training officer. Hill said they are required to work with the FTO for a minimum of 60 hours, but he’s found it takes about 150 hours to really have an officer ready to work on their own.
“A lot of my really good candidates, mid to late 20s, have a job and five days vacation or a wife and a kid and just can’t do it,” he said.
Hill said over the last three years he hired two candidates for deputy positions, but they ended up quitting because they couldn’t get time off from their jobs so they had to withdraw from training.
He said he’s also talked to people who have said they don’t want to work in law enforcement.
“That’s kind of a trend also with everything that you see across the country and the world. Law enforcement used to be a first choice for a lot of people and it’s not so much,” he said.
Other police departments around the area have also reported having problems hiring, saying people don’t want to be police officers anymore.
Gabel said she’s gone to the Legislature asking for more money for the contracts with the sheriff’s departments and while the amount has gone up it’s still not what is needed.
If the problem isn’t addressed she said it’s possible court hours will need to be reduced in some counties which means court cases will take longer to go through the system.
Gabel said there needs to be a statewide review of law enforcement at courts. She said the judiciary enters into 14 different contracts for security at the over 20 courthouses in the state, one contract per county. She said that’s not a viable long-term strategy.
Gabel suggested the Legislature, law enforcement and the judiciary get together to problem solve and figure these issues out to make sure courts have the security coverage they need.