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Unfunded mandates catch police chiefs off-guard

Across the county, police departments small and large are being forced to collaborate to meet new, unfunded officer training mandates.

In July, the state told its police chiefs that it would no longer pay to provide yearly training for full-time officers. The commonwealth also put a time requirement on that training for the first time. Now, all full-time officers, including chiefs, need to receive 32 hours of training per year.

The problem is, the mandate came after the police departments had put together their budgets, catching the chiefs off-guard.

“I’m baffled that the state is doing it this way,” said Sunderland Police Chief Jeffrey Gilbert. “They don’t understand small departments like mine. It’s hard to fund all these required trainings, and have to cover the officers’ shifts.”

Gilbert has five full-time officers in his department, and three part-time officers. At one time, he said, he had 10 part-timers, and he’d like to hire a couple more.

Others weren’t surprised to hear the state would no longer provide free training.

“It wasn’t really a shock to hear it’s not being funded (by the state); there’s no money anywhere,” said Orange Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. He has 10 full-timers, including himself, who need to meet the mandate.

It’s going to be no small task for his department.

“Funding is already difficult,” said Haigh. “Now, everyone will need to be paid overtime when attending trainings, and everyone covering their shifts will need overtime, as well.”

Knowing how much training is required will help Haigh draft his next budget. The department currently takes its training out of budgeted overtime, but the chief said he will likely request a training budget in the future.

“It’s easy enough to figure out the numbers and ask for it,” he said. Whether those additional funds will be approved, he knows not. Orange has experienced several budget crises in recent years, and at one point considered cutting back on the town’s round-the-clock police coverage to make ends meet.

Funding is one issue, said Haigh, but with only two officers per shift, scheduling is a problem as well.

Larger departments, with a bigger pool of officers, don’t have as much trouble providing shift coverage.

“Even though the mandate only covers full-time officers, our part-time and reserve officers will also need to be trained,” said Montague Police Chief Charles “Chip” Dodge. “It only makes sense, if you train the majority of officers, to have everyone else trained as well.”

His department employs 15 full-timers, and several part-time and reserve officers. Though Dodge said he will have no trouble finding officers to cover shifts while others are in training, he’s still got to pay them.

“We have a budget line-item for training,” he said. “But, due to unanticipated costs, sometimes training money has to be used for something else. Now, with the mandate, the budget will be a lot more strict.”

Though each department faces its own obstacles in meeting the mandate, the chiefs agreed that officer training is a vital part of the job.

“I support officer training 100 percent,” said Dodge. “It’s important to stay up to date on changes to the law. Defense tactics are also really important.”

Those areas, along with CPR, first-responder and firearms training, are required by the state. However, the mandate did not specify how much time must be spent on each area, and is allowing other police training to count toward the 32-hour goal.

Haigh said some of his officers have been pro-active, participating in online trainings in their free time. He said they did it just because they wanted to become better officers. Counting toward the 32-hour goal is an added benefit.

Online training works in some areas, like legal updates, but others, like defensive tactics and CPR, benefit from a more hands-on approach, said Dodge. For those classes, officers from several towns will get together in groups.

The chiefs agree it’s important for the cash-strapped departments to collaborate to provide instructors and training. It’s been a big topic at recent county police chiefs’ meetings.

The Franklin County Chiefs of Police Association is teaming up with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Northwest District Attorney to cut down on training costs. The DA’s office is compiling legal updates, and Sheriff Christopher Donelan is sending some of his staff out to become certified trainers, who could then provide training sessions to the departments.

Dodge said his department has teamed up with the Fire Department for CPR and first-responder training, but will need to make sure it meets the state’s requirements this year.

Though the departments look to outside sources for most of the required trainings, one aspect can be covered in-house. It’s standard practice for police departments to have an officer who’s a certified firearms trainer. This allows them to provide their officers with classroom and firing range training, only needing to pay officers for their time.

The timing of the new training mandates caught departments a little off-guard budgetwise, but they’ve come up with several ways to defray this year’s costs, and will know what to prepare for in coming years. As the state continues to decrease local aid, the county’s long-standing tradition of cooperation continues to come up with creative solutions.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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