Starting next week, the town of Hartford will try something new, putting the fire chief in charge of the police department. The aim is to save money and to improve the coordination of public safety services. The plan has the support of the selectboard, but even the Town Manager admits it’s an experiment.
Like many towns in Vermont, Hartford has had trouble attracting and keeping police officers. It’s a tough job, with a lot of turnover. Now there’s a vacancy at the top, with the retirement of Police Chief Glenn Cutting. Hartford is also facing a big budget deficit. So instead of recruiting a new chief in the usual way, from the state police, or from other locations, Town Manager Hunter Reiseberg has asked the Fire Chief to oversee both the fire and police departments.
"We have a capable and progessive fire chief in house, literally in the same house, on the other side of the wall, and why couldn’t he lend a hand to assist the department in its administrative duties?" Reiseberg wondered. "And so given that police and fire, public safety consolidations are going on around the country we thought we’d try this little experiement, and ask the fire chief to serve as the administrative head of both departments."
The key word here is "administrative." Fire Chief Steve Locke will not have law enforcement authority, and will not carry a firearm. His job, Reiseberg says, is three-fold: to seek accreditation for the department, to manage both budgets, and create what Reiseberg calls a "succession" plan.
"And the hopes are that within a couple of years, with Chief Locke’s support, that there will be several people within the department who might then be better prepared to take on the position of chief or be prepared for ascension to mid and upper level management positions within the departmen," Reiseberg explained.
Reiseberg says Locke knows the community well, and will put a friendlier face on policing. Hartford’s police department has been in the spotlight over the past few years for what some describe as overzealous enforcment. The former chief, Glenn Cutting, strongly opposes this consolidation, because he does not believe a fire chief knows enough about law enforcment to supervise cops on the street. But Locke believes he can bring useful long-range planning to the department.
"Clearly I still will remain the fire chief, so that’s my background, but I also have a background in management," he said. "And what we really need, because we have great boots on the ground, to control operations, we need leadership to help guide and set a strategic vision for all of our public safety departments. So that’s going to be my primary task– to do those administrative functions, control budgetting, and help along those lines."
The day-to-day supervision of what Locke calls "boots on the ground" will fall to the Deputy Police Chief. Locke says he knows he will have to earn the trust of the police officers he will now supervise, as well as Hartford residents. But he says he is eager for the challenge.
"Give us a chance," he asks. "I hope you will see a better police department and a better fire department and a better communications center… we have great people, we just need to give them direction and set a vision."
Similar consolidations are being tried in Bennington and Barre, but in those places the police chief is in charge of the fire department, not, as in Hartford, the other way around.
Locke starts wearing his two hats next week.