Bristol eyes police district expansion

BRISTOL — Bristol officials have decided it’s time to take another look at expanding the Bristol Police Department’s coverage area to include the entire town.

“We have to make a decision in four years about our building,” Bristol Police Chief Bruce Nason told the town selectboard on Monday, referring to the lease on the BPD’s current headquarters in the Bristol Works Complex, which expires in 2023. “If we are thinking about (expanding) town-wide and we are able to do that, that should (happen) first.”

Currently the BPD polices roughly one square mile of Bristol Village. The expansion would increase the department’s geographic coverage more than 40-fold.

A lot has to get figured out first, however, so at Nason’s request the selectboard on Monday night authorized the formation of a Police Townwide Study Committee, which will be tasked with determining the feasibility, voter support and possible timeline for the expansion.

The committee won’t be starting from scratch, however.

Led by Bristol resident Jim Quaglino, the Bristol Police Advisory Board — a separate, long-standing committee — has studied the issue in the past.

In 2012 the Advisory Board surveyed 1,139 Bristol voters about expanding the BPD into a town-wide police force and found that 50.6 percent approved, 21.8 percent were opposed and 27.7 percent were undecided.

Quaglino shared the Advisory Board’s work with then Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs, but there was no further action.

The new Police Townwide Study Committee will be able to use the Advisory Board’s work as a foundation, updating it and adding to it where necessary.

“I know that this is something that we’ve been looking for for I don’t know how many years,” said selectboard member John “Peeker” Heffernan on Monday night. To his knowledge, he added, the selectboard had never seen any information about it from former chief Gibbs. “So I’m happy to see this.”

According to a preliminary timeline proposed by Chief Nason, the committee would begin meeting in September and make a recommendation to the selectboard by the end of October. Nason suggested scheduling a town-wide vote on the issue in January 2020 so that it would be fresh in voters’ minds ahead of budget votes on Town Meeting Day.

Though Bristol Town Administrator Valerie Capels thought Nason’s schedule might be “a bit ambitious,” she acknowledged that time is of the essence.

“If the plan is for (the BPD) to move to a new facility, that planning needs to begin as soon as possible regardless of whether a town-wide expansion is approved, but it would be important to know what capacity to plan for,” Capels wrote in an Aug. 16 report.

Selectboard member Peter Coffey gave Nason’s schedule a thumbs-up.

“I like the timeline because for 16 years wheels have been spinning,” he said on Monday. “But obviously, just like anything else, we’ve got to have some very solid numbers, because people aren’t going to vote if they don’t have solid numbers.”

Several members of the selectboard and public were adamant on Monday that expanding the BPD’s geographic coverage should not necessarily translate into an expansion of the department itself.

“I don’t buy the direct corollary that town-wide expansion automatically requires more personnel and cars,” said Bristol resident and business owner John Moyer.

In 2012, when the Advisory Board surveyed citizens about BPD expansion, the department had recently been reduced from four officers to three and was operating with a budget of $343,728.

Currently the BPD employs five officers (three full-time and two part-time) and operates with a budget of $468,769. The force has two police cruisers, Nason told the Independent.

The BPD budget is funded by Police District residents, who also pay their share, through town taxes, of the $10,000 that is budgeted for town contracted patrols and the $5,400 that is budgeted for non-district police calls.

In 2018 the BPD responded to 2,881 incidents, an increase of 862 (or 43 percent) over the year before.

For town residents who live outside the Bristol Police District, the Vermont State Police serve as the primary law enforcement agency.

A few of those non-district residents will get an opportunity to contribute to the expansion conversation as members of the new study committee.

It’s unlikely, however, that members of the long-standing Bristol Police Advisory Board will sign up for the new committee, Quaglino said Monday night, though he acknowledged that under the right circumstances he might be willing to volunteer.

“But it’s up to you guys,” he told the selectboard. “If you want fresh meat, go ahead.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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