Jim Kenyon: In Hartland, a conversation on small towns and policing

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 10-05-2023 5:27 PM

More Upper Valley communities — big and small — could use a public meeting like the one that Hartland held last week.

The topic was policing. How many cops, if any, does the town need? Can police serve as an effective deterrent to crime? Other than handing out traffic tickets, what role should law enforcement play in a rural Vermont town? How can residents hold police accountable?

Hartland is ripe for the conversation. The town, which has about 3,200 residents, doesn’t have a police department.

It relies mostly on a town constable and Vermont State Police to keep the peace — and write speeding tickets. Due to a shortage of troopers, however, state police are unable to fulfill its contract with the town.

The contract calls for troopers to spend 15 hours a week in Hartland at a cost of $45,000 a year. Since July, state police have billed the town for only 34½ hours, which comes to less than $2,600.

The Windsor County Sheriff’s Department has picked up some of the slack, providing 107½ hours of coverage that has cost the town about $7,000.

Still, some residents argue the town could use more of a police presence. They say that Hartland’s close proximity to Interstate 91 makes it a haven for drug dealings.

“Criminals know Hartland is not well-policed,” resident David Singer, a Windsor County assistant judge, said at Thursday’s meeting. “It is a good place for them. Let’s not make it a good place for them.”

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The Selectboard established a seven-member safety and policing committee, consisting of two board members and five residents, that began meeting this summer.

“We’re trying to determine what people think the needs are,” said Mandi Potter, a Selectboard member who chairs the committee.

About 40 residents attended Thursday’s meeting or watched via Zoom.

As the committee has learned, or perhaps it already knew going in, the town’s options on the policing front are limited.

Creating a town police department is not a small expense.

Cornish, which has roughly half the population as Hartland, spends $207,000 for a full-time officer and three part-time officers, interim Town Manager Martin Dole said Thursday. In Norwich, which has 3,600 residents, the police department has a budget of more than $600,000 a year, Dole added.

Hartland’s current town budget for policing totals about $80,000.

Even if residents bought into the idea of having their own police department, finding officers would be challenging. (Just ask Norwich.)

“Initially, we’re not going to have our own police department,” committee member Tom Kennedy, who also serves on the Selectboard, told residents.

In all likelihood, the town has two options. It could expand the county sheriff’s role or make a deal with neighboring Windsor. The Hartland School Board already pays Windsor for a so-called school resource officer to patrol the hallways and grounds at the elementary school.

To their credit, residents and committee members expressed interest in developing policing with a social services bent, particularly on crises calls that require mental health intervention. “We don’t want hard-nosed police officers,” Kennedy said.

Ahead of Thursday’s session, Potter collected call statistics from state police and Windsor County Sheriff Ryan Palmer, who attended the meeting.

Between January 2022 and this July, the two law enforcement agencies responded to only three complaints about drug activity.

The figure can be taken a couple of ways. Either the notion that drug dealing runs rampant in Hartland is overblown, or the lack of a police presence means the bad guys are operating with impunity.

“For anyone who says we don’t need police in this town, I strongly disagree,” a resident said.

Since sheriff’s deputies stepped up patrols, there’s much less activity at a “well-known drug house” in his family’s neighborhood, he added.

During the 18-month period that Potter looked at, state police and sheriff’s deputies made 294 traffic stops. But there’s general agreement the town could do more to curb speeding.

“You can’t go out of your driveway without taking your life into your hands,” a woman said.

“Having more of a police presence will slow people down,” added committee member Alan Beebe.

More policing, however, can sometimes have troubling consequences. The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont points out on its website that “data consistently shows Vermont law enforcement stops, searches and arrests Black and Brown people at disproportionate rates.”

It’s also important to recognize that no matter how many cops are on a town’s payroll, some crimes are almost impossible to prevent — a truth that longtime Hartland residents can sadly speak to.

On a Sunday afternoon in May 1984, 16-year-old Heidi Martin, who was on the track team at Hartford High, went for a run on a dirt road close to the elementary school.

When Martin didn’t return home, her family reported her missing. The next day, her body was found in a brook off a nearby logging road.

Delbert Tallman, a 21-year-old Windsor man, was charged in her stabbing death. Tallman, who prosecutors described as a “loner with psychological problems” was later acquitted of second-degree murder in a jury trial. In the nearly 40 years since the horrific crime, no one else has been charged.

At next year’s Town Meeting in March, it’s a solid bet that Hartland residents will be asked to foot a bill for additional policing.

Between now and then, residents should keep asking questions like they did last week.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.