They are the people who respond to emergencies all hours of the day, every day of the year. They roll out of bed at 3 AM and jump into action when they hear the calls for help. They respond to traffic accidents, structure fires, and medical and mental health emergencies. To domestic violence incidents, drug overdoses, property crimes, and bomb threats. They transport patients to hospitals and respond to shootings, assaults, and incidents of animal abuse. They direct traffic, search for missing persons, conduct backcountry search and rescue, and perform welfare checks. The list goes on and on. Each year, we ask more and more from our first responders. We expect them to protect the dignity, health, and rights of all and keep our communities safe in an ever-changing and increasingly challenging landscape. To say we ask a lot of our first responders is an understatement.
Firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel put their own lives on hold, and often in jeopardy, when they try to help others in distress. State, county, municipal, and non-profit agencies provide these services and rely on Vermonters to provide the resources and support they need to carry out their duties. That obligation, however, is becoming harder to achieve for many reasons, and there are no easy solutions. Vermonters need to engage in robust, ongoing conversations and partnerships between state and local governments to tackle and resolve the pressing issues our first responders face.
This paper (the fourth of VLCT’s Municipal Action Papers for 2022) provides information on the state of public safety in Vermont and some of the challenges facing those whose purpose is to respond in a crisis. VLCT Advocacy staff welcomes any questions you have regarding the issues your communities face, and we thank you for working to help our municipalities serve us all better.
Recruitment, Training, Retention
Vermont public safety departments, agencies, and service providers continue to experience extreme difficulties in recruiting, training, and retaining public safety personnel. It is the norm, not the exception, for police departments, rescue squads, and volunteer fire departments to be understaffed, with several vacant positions at any given time. The pressure this puts on remaining personnel is extreme. Finding volunteers to serve in increasingly complex and demanding roles is more and more difficult, particularly in rural areas and on volunteer fire and ambulance squads. It is difficult to find people who live and work close to the firehouse and can respond to daytime calls. It is difficult to find emergency medical technicians who are willing to provide nursing level care at wages that are normally half or less than what hospital staff receive. These issues are no longer the purview of only volunteer squads: larger agencies with paid professional positions now regularly face them. It is not just a matter of hiring, retaining, and providing ongoing training – interested and viable recruits need to be found in the first place.
It is a difficult time to be a police officer. Increased workloads due to low staffing levels and increased crime, intense public scrutiny and criticism, and a profession that demands expertise in areas stretching far beyond traditional “law enforcement” — increasingly involved with individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, and/or drug addiction without the specialized training to address those crises. Finding recruits who will be a credit to the profession is challenging, especially since there are many other attractive career options. In EMS, many EMTs and paramedics move on to other positions in healthcare, such as nurses and physicians’ assistants. This makes retaining rescue squad employees difficult. Training requirements in the public safety field increase every year and are more frequent, time consuming, and costly. Personnel and public safety departments struggle to keep up and often cannot afford to expand or even maintain adequate staffing levels. Budgets for municipalities are stressed from every direction as almost every town is wholly reliant on the property tax. Frequently, municipalities can’t match the compensation offered by the State of Vermont or the private sector — or by out-of-state opportunities that offer career advancement or a more affordable place to live.
Individual service providers cannot solve these problems alone. A statewide recommitment to helping our fire, law enforcement, and emergency medical services providers is essential. State and municipal officials need to support broad-based recruiting efforts. They need to seek out high school and college students, former military personnel, and community volunteers for personnel. The Vermont Fire Academy, the Vermont Police Academy (and the Criminal Justice Council), and the Department of Health are all in need of increased funding for certification training programs, professional regulation, and activities for all emergency service personnel.
It is in everyone’s interest to determine if current statutorily mandated training remains necessary and responsive to current circumstances or impact on personnel and agencies. If not, curriculum and statute should be amended to eliminate outdated training requirements and methods. The state and local government must be empowered to explore alternatives to the residential, overnight Vermont Police Academy recruit training program, which by its very nature prevents many individuals with family and work obligations from even considering law enforcement as a career option in Vermont. The state needs to provide more geographically diverse and affordable training to EMS, fire, and rescue squads for similar reasons.
Vermont is not alone in this recruitment and retention quagmire, and we can look to other states to model policies that begin to resolve these problems. Ohio recently launched a program with two universities to assist upper-class criminal justice majors and pair them with law enforcement mentors to help them develop leadership skills. Upon graduation, the students are guaranteed a job with one of 12 participating law enforcement agencies in the state. The state is funding and operating the program, which will benefit state, local, and county governments as participating agencies. Massachusetts offers $3,000 reimbursement grants to law enforcement agencies for each officer who completes state mandated training at the police academy. Minnesota proposed legislation last year to provide grants to students pursuing a law enforcement degree or preparing to become a law enforcement officer. They also proposed new grants to reimburse agencies for the cost of recruitment and retention incentives offered. In Illinois, a bill was introduced to create a fund for agencies to use for hiring, rehiring, and personnel retention. In New York, legislation was proposed to forgive student loans for officers, and countless states used ARPA money to fund bonuses for law enforcement and other public safety officials as a means of retaining existing personnel. Initiatives like these are needed to address the statewide shortage of all public safety personnel because local agencies cannot reverse the current trend alone.
Dispatch and Regionalization
The entities and individuals that comprise the public safety community in Vermont are numerous and diverse, generally encompassing an array of organizations ranging from the Department of Public Safety to the local constable, from the Vermont State Police to the local municipal police department and sheriffs’ departments. Some larger communities have the means to establish and maintain a municipal fire department as well as first responder and dispatch services and a police department. Smaller communities often rely on volunteer fire departments and first responders, then contract out for policing services. While some parts of the state have very consistent police coverage, many rural areas are chronically underserved. Such is the landscape of public safety in Vermont.
Options for securing law enforcement services at the local level include contracting with external agencies such as the Vermont State Police (VSP) or county sheriffs; municipal constables certified in law enforcement; calling in special investigative units to investigate sex crimes, child abuse, domestic violence, crimes against people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations; creating a police department; contracting for dispatch services; entering into an inter-municipal police services agreement with another municipality; or some combination thereof. Fifty-four municipalities have police departments, and several of them provide services to neighboring towns. One hundred and thirty-five municipalities have or share services with a fire department; 60 municipalities provide or share volunteer or professional ambulance services. Public safety coverage in Vermont is complex, scattered, inconsistent, confusing, and constantly changing. More needs to be done to make public safety more efficient, effective, and responsive to the needs of all Vermont communities.
The state needs to fund municipalities that choose to explore the consolidation, integration, or regionalization of public safety services. Communities need reasonable support from the state to get these initiatives off the ground, and towns and cities that actively try to create more efficient and effective delivery of public safety services need to be rewarded for their efforts.
In the FY23 budget bill, Act 185, $11 million in one-time funding to the Department of Public Safety was included to fund grants for “regional dispatch facilities” to divorce the state from providing dispatching services to county, local, and non-profit public safety entities. The department is currently finalizing grant awards, and, based on early indications, the funding will likely go to a mix of agencies that either currently conduct dispatch and seek to expand services to other communities, or entities that one day hope to. One glaring shortcoming of this approach is that the governance structure and commitment of communities to join and support these “regional dispatch facilities” has not been determined. Similarly, the geographic makeup of agencies receiving grant funding is clustered in certain regions, while other areas of the state did not see any grant awards or applications from potential dispatch facilities. Although the funding is welcome and greatly needed, a plan for how these new entities will be governed and structured for success – as well as funded in the future – was not considered or linked to the grant awards in a meaningful way. It is guaranteed that the $11 million will fall significantly short of the requisite funding needed to even get a few of these agencies up and operating.
Act 185 created a working group on the new regional dispatch model that is charged with reporting back to the legislature on recommendations for a long-term funding model for regional dispatch to fairly assess costs statewide that does not unduly affect property taxes and also identifies the potential impact on property taxes. Recommendations must also include an estimated timeline and transition funding needed as new regional dispatch centers open and local dispatch services transition away from state-operated facilities. The group continues to meet and is having significant issues with not only identifying funding sources outside the property tax and establishing a timeline, but also determining the funding needs of the still amorphous “regional dispatch facilities,” many of which are only in the beginning stages of taking shape.
Currently, some local law enforcement, fire, and rescue agencies pay for their own emergency dispatch services, some have grandfathered arrangements with the VSP, and nearly 100 others do not pay any local fee for VSP dispatch services. These disparities have existed for decades. Yet providing dispatch services is expensive, severely straining state and local budgets across the state. The cost savings of efficient dispatch services, when built out, will benefit everyone, reducing long-term line items in the state budget and reliance on dispatching from the State Police. The current approach does not appear to create more efficiencies at this stage. The legislature will need to collaborate with municipalities and other public safety entities to create a systematic approach that guarantees success of these new regional facilities and financially supports them with new or existing General Fund money moving forward, because sheriff departments and local governments cannot fund dispatch services with fees for service and the property tax alone.
This year the legislature passed Act 126, a bill that as it began would have significantly altered the doctrine of qualified immunity as it applies to law enforcement officials in Vermont. The VLCT Board issued a statement and advocacy staff testified in opposition to the original bill because immunity for all government officials is an important protection from exposure to personal tort liability that could, as the Vermont State Supreme Court explained, “hamper their ability to effectively discharge their duties and subject their discretionary determination to review by a judicial system ill-suited to assess the full scope of factors involved in such determinations.” Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that applies to almost all public servants, not just law enforcement. Qualified immunity limits civil liability, not criminal liability, when government officials make a good faith effort to follow laws, regulations, policies, and training while doing their job. Typically, a government official cannot be sued if the constitutional or statutory right the official is accused of violating under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 or federal statute was not “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation. The Vermont Supreme Court has adopted a similar standard.
All municipal employees and officers are protected by immunities. City councilors, selectboard members, firefighters, road crews, teachers, town office personnel, elected and appointed municipal officers, and many others are protected from private rights of action when they – in good faith – exercise judgment as they properly follow laws, rules, policies, procedures, and training related to their jobs. Qualified immunity does not apply to criminal charges or protect government officials who act in bad faith. Egregious conduct outside the scope of training, applicable rules, policies, laws, or regulations is not protected. Qualified immunity allows government officials and employees to discharge their duties without worrying about being sued for actions that a court has not yet determined violate the constitution. It balances the desire to compensate individuals for harm caused by constitutional violations with the need to protect government officials from the distraction of lawsuits that are costly for taxpayers to defend, that deter people from taking public service jobs, and that inhibit governmental officials from effectively carrying out their duties.
Vermont needs to continue down the path of professionalizing, modernizing, and creating greater accountability in law enforcement. In 2017, Act 56 created new professional regulations in state law that apply to all law enforcement in Vermont. In 2020, Act 147, Act 165, and Act 166 addressed prohibited restraints, use of force standards, and the collection of roadside stop data and use of body cameras. Act 166 substantially restructured and expanded the Criminal Justice Council and required agencies to report credible complaints of professional misconduct to the Council. In 2021, Act 27 made further adjustments to the use of force standard, established an officer’s duty to intervene, and updated new statewide training requirements. These are the types of measures that improve law enforcement practices, create accountability, and foster trust and transparency. Law enforcement personnel and departments are committed to better serving the communities they serve and protect, and the state needs to support that work with more resources for training, community outreach, and professional development and regulations. No amount of litigation will address any of these issues.
The legislature will review qualified immunity again this biennium as Legislative Counsel was charged to conduct a legal analysis of the qualified immunity and how it related to access to civil justice remedies in Vermont and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the federal court of jurisdiction for Vermont). VLCT will continue to oppose the elimination of qualified immunity for any government official, including law enforcement. A full review of VLCT’s evaluation of qualified immunity can be found here.
VLCT Legislative Policy Priorities for Public Safety
Collaboration and partnership between all levels of government to implement new ways to recruit and retain public safety personnel.
Instituting flexible alternatives to the residential Vermont Police Academy training program.
Provide adequate funding and resources to the Vermont Fire Academy, Vermont Police Academy, and the Department of Heath for all training programs and activities for public safety personnel.
Preserve qualified immunity for law enforcement and all governmental officials.
Establish a long-term, systemic approach to financially support call handling and dispatch emergency services.
Systemic criminal justice reforms that address the drivers of crime and reduce reoffending.