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Middlebury police have difficulty finding qualified cops

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January 3, 2008

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Only a decade ago, Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley didn’t have to worry a lot about filling unexpected vacancies on his force. He would just reach into his filing cabinet and pull out a folder with more than 50 qualified candidates, and start recruiting.

It’s not that easy anymore.

Middlebury is currently struggling to fill two longstanding vacancies on its police force, a chore made especially difficult by a shallow pool of applicants, many of whom can’t measure up to even basic entry requirements.

“It’s been a rough road to hoe this past year,” Hanley said on Friday.

“The candidate pool is very thin,” he added. “The trend seems to be that people are not entering this type of public service anymore.”

It was back in February that the town began advertising its two police officer vacancies, thus far with limited success.

Hanley now has around 30 résumés in his file of candidates, but none have completely worked out. The department has offered multiple rounds of candidate testing during the past 10 months, but the smattering of hopefuls have either failed to make the grade; have moved on to other opportunities; or couldn’t pass the requisite background check.

Middlebury has decided to continue its search rather than make some potentially bad hires.

“We are not going to lower our standards to get people in the door,” Hanley said. “You can’t let a cancer in the door.”

The town of Middlebury is far from alone in having a hard time attracting and retaining qualified police officers. It is a problem that has been plaguing local, county and state law enforcement operations not only throughout Vermont, but the Northeast, officials said.

A “Statewide Law Enforcement Officer Retention Study” commissioned by the Vermont Department of Public Safety in 2005 revealed that the state’s law enforcement agencies had experienced an average annual turnover rate of 6 percent during each of the previous five years. Municipal police departments reported an average annual turnover rate of 8.25 percent, according to the study.

“Recruitment, nationally, is an issue,” said June Kelly, assistant director of the Vermont Police Academy, which trains new hires before they join their respective departments. “Looking at the numbers coming in (to the academy), we are seeing less people testing and less people coming into the system.”

Kelly said 26 new officers graduated from the academy’s latest class on Nov. 30. While she described class enrollments as having been “up and down” in recent years, Kelly acknowledged that 26 is somewhat lower than average.

The academy runs two classes each year for new recruits. The students receive a total of 18.5 weeks of training.

Officials cited various reasons for the current dearth in law enforcement candidates. The job is inherently dangerous; often demands irregular hours and holiday shifts; and does not offer top wages. Starting pay for a Middlebury police officer is around $32,000 annually, excluding benefits, according to Hanley. He noted some officers on small municipal forces like Middlebury’s eventually resign to fill vacancies in Chittenden County or in New York state, where they can earn higher salaries.

While Hanley said he expects to place a new recruit into the academy’s new class that kicks off in February, personnel shortages within the Middlebury department are likely to get worse before they get better. That’s because one of his officers will soon leave to fulfill a three-month obligation to the Air National Guard, while another must serve a 16-week stint at the Vermont Police Academy. Middlebury’s one potential new officer won’t be eligible to join the department until September — assuming he makes it through the academy.

“We will be down four officers,” Hanley said. “That’s more than 25 percent of our entire force.”

All of this means that Middlebury’s current officers will be asked to work overtime.

“The activity doesn’t slow up,” Hanley said. “It puts more burden on the remaining people to do more.”

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