By Tiffany Tan/VTDigger
Like many law enforcement agencies around the country, the Rutland Police Dept. has been having difficulty recruiting new police officers.
Filling its 13 open positions is expected to be so challenging that Rutland Mayor David Allaire has suggested funding only half of them in the next fiscal year as a way to limit tax increases.
Last week, Allaire proposed to the Board of Aldermen a city budget of $22.8 million for fiscal year 2023, which starts next July 1. It’s up 2.78% from the current budget of $22.2 million — but cuts the current $6.8 million police budget by 5.5%.
Allaire said that, in weighing how to move the city forward while keeping it affordable, one cut he suggests is not funding seven of the 13 police officer vacancies, since they will likely remain open in the coming fiscal year. About a third of the city’s 40 police officer positions are now vacant.
“The outlook for filling these positions, unfortunately, are dim in the short term,” Allaire said at a video-recorded board meeting Nov. 1. Police departments all over the country are having trouble finding officers.
But if the Rutland department can recruit more officers than budgeted, Allaire said he will look for the money to make the hires.
In an interview, Allaire said the money to hire more officers next fiscal year could come from the city’s rainy day fund. He said the fund, which carries over from year to year, currently stands at $2.3 million.
According to Rutland City Clerk Henry Heck, the pay and benefits package for each police officer costs between $100,000 and $125,000 per year.
Rutland Police Chief Brian Kilcullen would prefer to fund all of his department’s open positions, but calls the mayor’s rationale “a responsible approach.”
“I don’t think we will be able to fill all of our openings even if the funding had been in place,” he told VTDigger.
‘Police staffing crisis’
Kilcullen, the Rutland police chief since 2015, said he can’t remember the last time the police department was fully staffed. He said it is among the biggest municipal-level law enforcement agencies in Vermont.
But recruiting new officers has become especially difficult in the past couple of years, Kilcullen said, amid factors such as the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide calls to defund the police after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
Echoing earlier statements by Vermont’s acting U.S. attorney, Jonathan Ophardt, Kilcullen said Vermont is experiencing a police staffing crisis.
Ophardt said that, in recent years, Vermont has witnessed a decline in police officers at the same time as violent crimes have risen. By January, he said, the number of full-time officers in the state is expected to fall below 700, down 125 from current levels.
To bolster the Rutland police force, Kilcullen said his department intends to recruit officers from other states. One strategy he is considering is to hire officers who have left law enforcement agencies that required Covid-19 vaccinations. Affected agencies include police departments in Chicago, New York City and Seattle.
“While our preference certainly is that our employees become vaccinated,” Kilcullen said, “it is not required.”
One additional staff member the Rutland Police Department could soon hire is a civilian who will respond to noncriminal disputes. The mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes funding for the new position.
Kilcullen said the job details are still being ironed out, but that the person’s responsibility would be to handle calls that don’t require a police officer’s presence.
“A lot of what we do is essentially mediation,” he said, explaining they are situations in which police have no authority over the issues involved. He cited as an example disagreements that don’t allege criminal acts.