Local News

Assessment suggests citizen advisory board, additional officer for Chester Police

By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

After a monthslong assessment into the Chester Police Department, a consultant recommended the town consider creating a police-community advisory board and adding an officer to focus on data and detective work.

“I do believe that citizens own your police department — it’s their police department,” James Baker, who led the assessment, said to the Chester Selectboard Sept. 21 when presenting his findings.

Baker was formerly a state police director and also previously led the Rutland and Manchester police departments as well as the Vermont Department of Corrections, all on an interim basis.

The decision to assess Chester’s Police Department came a year after Vermont’s Human Rights Commission found reasonable grounds that the Chester Police Department engaged in illegal discrimination against Obadiah Jacobs in actions leading up to and during a traffic stop in May 2019. The traffic stop was a reaction to a “wanted driver” alert from a nearby town.

While the incident was not the impetus behind Baker’s assessment, it was cited as affecting staff morale and implicitly mentioned as reducing community trust.

In May, the Chester Select Board discussed the future of its police department — including the idea of creating a civilian advisory board — after prompting from concerned residents. Members agreed to put off further consideration until Baker completed his assessment.

Baker told the board he interviewed all members of the police department, as well as some town staff and stakeholders. He had also facilitated focus groups with Chester residents, gathering community input.

While Chester has a low crime rate, Baker said issues around substance use and mental health affected quality of life in town — problems he has seen statewide.

Among Baker’s recommendations: consider creating a police advisory board, adding a sixth full-time officer for detective work and data analysis, and taking a strategic and equitable approach to training across staff members.

“Citizens need to be able to touch the department,” Baker said.

While an advisory board would not control police investigations, it could recommend policies and programs, and act as a go-between for citizens and officers, Baker said.

Recommendations to the police department from a 2013 Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ assessment had been largely ignored, Baker said. He suggested the department revisit that report.

While he determined that Chester’s police department was “well-running and efficient” with “decent” morale, Baker found a lack of sufficient communication between the community and police, as well as internally within the department. Citizens reported not getting phone calls returned from police and not knowing officers’ names. No officers knew what the process would be if a complaint was filed against them, Baker said.

“That’s the kind of stress you just don’t need on your officers,” he told the Select Board. Select Board chair Arne Jonynas praised Baker’s work for its ability to “bring our department into the 21st century.”

“It’s going to start everything in the direction that I think the town wants to go,” Jonynas said.

Looking long term, Baker also urged the board to consider a regional approach to policing. Nearby Bellows Falls, Ludlow, Springfield and Weathersfield all have police departments.

“I really think it’s time in Vermont to start talking about conversations around regionalization,” Baker said, citing staffing shortages. “This is the kind of area where, if it’s got any chance of working, it could potentially start to work here.”

Baker performed a similar investigation into the police force in Shelburne, where residents expressed frustration about a lack of transparency in police actions. His report was issued in February.

In Barre City, councilors formed a citizen board in July 2020 to review police complaints, though it possesses limited powers.

More recently, Bennington moved forward with creating a five-to-seven-member board with the goal of analyzing anonymous complaints against Bennington Police and recommending additional training for officers.

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