By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger
Democratic candidates Ryan Palmer and Thomas Battista are vying to oust longtime incumbent Michael Chamberlain, a Republican who was first elected sheriff in 1978, and has been sheriff continuously since 1998.
The Aug. 9 primary pits the insider, Battista — a deputy in the department for nearly 20 years — against Palmer, a police officer in Ludlow and chair of the Windsor Select Board, who has positioned himself as the changemaker in an often overlooked political race.
“I’m probably the most progressive one in this race,” Palmer said in an interview, vowing to end so-called “policing for profit.”
In Vermont, sheriffs are obligated to undertake certain duties designated by the state, such as serving eviction papers and transporting prisoners and people with mental illnesses.
The state’s meager county-level budgets allocate some money to sheriff’s departments, and state funding supports the sheriffs’ salaries and those of a couple of dozen deputies split among the counties.
A majority of sheriff’s department funding comes from contracts with towns, construction companies, courthouses and other institutions that require a law enforcement presence. Elected sheriffs themselves are allowed by law to pocket up to 5% of their departments’ contracts, thereby providing an incentive for some enterprising sheriffs to run their offices like a business.
In 2018, the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department received over $1.5 million in contracts, making up three-quarters of the department’s overall funding.
“This is like legitimate, state-sanctioned policing for profit,” Palmer said, “that just doesn’t seem like that should be a function of any government agency, let alone a law enforcement one.”
One of the Windsor sheriff’s biggest municipal contracts comes from the town of Bridgewater, which involves 12 hours of coverage a day, mostly conducting speed enforcement. A 2018 Vermont Public Radio investigation found that more tickets had been issued in Bridgewater than in any other town in the state, and all that policing cost the town almost one-third of its total revenue.
Chamberlain, the current sheriff in Windsor County, said that some towns are struggling to generate enough money to fund their budgets, so they contract with the sheriff’s department for traffic enforcement, which can help create revenue.
“We generate some money back to the towns,” Chamberlain said.
Instead of focusing on traffic enforcement, Palmer, 35, says he would have his department provide “modern, professional law enforcement service,” prioritizing boots-on-the-ground community engagement, especially with youth; collaboration with mental health and recovery organizations; and transparency in the form of body cameras.
Those forms of policing often require more work hours than traffic enforcement and don’t create a revenue stream for the towns paying for the services. Palmer said he recognized that changing the department’s status quo would require “tough discussions with towns,” but he believes “people will be willing to pay for a certain level of service, a certain quality of service.”
On most issues, Battista and Palmer align: Both advocate for transparency, and both stress the importance of finding help for people facing issues with mental illness or substance use, and so keep them out of the criminal justice system. Both have also spoken about the importance of offering mental health services to police officers to address trauma and prevent officers from taking out stifled emotions on civilians.
Battista, however, dismisses the criticism of policing for profit.
Towns decide what sort of policing they want from the sheriff’s department, Battista said, and although the sheriffs can keep 5% of the money from contracts with towns, the department does not keep any revenue from the tickets it writes.
The two also disagree on the best way to achieve transparency. Battista wants to establish a civilian review board to assess complaints against the dept.; Palmer has said he’s “not a fan” of the boards, which he believes attract members who skew anti-police.
Battista sees citizen input and oversight as the best way to ensure police accountability.
“There’s true transparency there. You can do body cams all day long — that’s not transparency, that’s just a video recording of some incident,” he said. “Once you have the civilian review board that has the authority to review and possibly sanction officers, then … the paradigm will switch.”
It was oversight not from a civilian board, but from the state, that almost ended Palmer’s law enforcement career. During a plainclothes drug sting in 2014, Palmer, while working in the Windsor Police Dept., shot a suspect twice in the arm, sending the man to the hospital.
He was ultimately exonerated in 2017. Asked about the trial, Palmer said his experience has led him to treat people with more empathy and respect. It has also led him to spend more time thinking about policing, and how policing ought to change for the better.
“I’m an outsider,” he said. “I have the vision and the drive and the motivation to make these changes.”