Chester Police Dept. study finds communication lacking, training procedures outdated

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Police Department needs to improve its communication with the public as well as bring its policies and related training procedures into the 21st century, according to a number of recommendations in an assessment of the town’s Police Department written by Jim Baker, a former director of the Vermont State Police. Baker presented the assessment to the Chester Select Board at its Sept. 21 meeting.

Jim Baker presenting his assessment to the Chester Select Board on Sept. 21

Jim Baker presenting his assessment to the Chester Select Board on Sept. 21.  All photos by Shawn Cunningham

To reach its conclusions, the assessment,  conducted over several months this summer, gleaned information from police officers, other first responders, focus groups and individual residents as well  from a community survey.

Baker told the board that the community is “very safe” and that crime is very low in Chester. He noted that about 8 percent of calls for service are related to crime. Baker also said that the Police Department is generally in good shape, but that an assessment is supposed to find areas where improvements can be made.

He said that he found the department consists of qualified and professional staff but that training on policies that have not been updated until recently needs to take place. In the report, he specifically calls out training on “high risk, low frequency” policies (like use of force and high-speed chases) to limit the town’s exposure to liability. Additionally, Baker found that there is no strategic approach to training and that training hours need to be “allocated in a more balanced manner.” He also suggested designating a training coordinator within the department.

Communication both within the department and with the community was another area where Baker felt there could be improvement. He recommended using the guidance contained in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to accomplish this and also in providing a psychologically safe, supported workplace for department members. He said that morale is affected by the national debate on policing and the staff has a feeling of having lost a sense of security.

Baker also suggested the town should “explore and develop” a police community advisory board and develop a community policing strategy.

Writing that the department is generally reactive rather than proactive, Baker pointed to the high number of directed patrols as a good thing because it means the community is calling in about problems. However, he added, “directed patrols … are not effective.”

“You’re playing Russian roulette to see if you’re going to be there at the right time,” said Baker.

Town Manager Julie Hance has said that Baker will be helping with the hiring of a new chief of police

Town Manager Julie Hance has said that Baker will be helping with the hiring of a new chief of police.

Baker instead recommended using data gleaned from speed signs to decide when to assign directed patrols for traffic violations. Likewise he suggested constructing “heat maps” that show where and when crimes are being committed so the department knows when to schedule “heavy,” which allows for better use of resources and more precise policing.

In the report and in his presentation, Baker referred to the “co-production of safety,” which “involves a greater level of influence and involvement by the community.” Asked what the police would expect for citizen involvement Baker said, “If you have an unsafe situation in the community, that’s not just the Police Department’s issue to solve.” He cited addiction as an the example.

“It’s not the sole responsibility of the police department to arrest its way out of the problem, it’s a community issue that requires a community response,” said Baker.

Baker also recommended coming up with “mission vision and values statements” that align with the needs of the community and hiring a sixth full-time officer.

Board chair Arne Jonynas thanked Baker for his work and said there may have been issues in the past but with the assessment the town is looking forward. “There’s so much information in there and what’s important is that we use it in a positive way,” said Jonynas. “As a community, we’re looking for improvement and a relationship with the police.”

Asked by Jonynas if he would recommend an advisory vs. an oversight committee, Baker said he is a big fan of advisory boards that participate in shaping policy and bring the citizens’ perspectives to the table.  “The citizens own the police department,” said Baker. “…citizens need to be able to touch the department.”

According to Town Manager Julie Hance, Baker will be assisting with the search for a new police chief as Chief Rick Cloud will be retiring at the end of this year. Baker noted that Cloud has been working without a formal contract and that this was not a good practice.

One planning proposal approved, one postponed

Planning Commission member Peter Hudkins explains the proposed amendments to the zoning bylaws

Planning Commission member Peter Hudkins explains the proposed amendments to the zoning bylaws.

M/dropcap]embers of the Planning Commission came before the board with two amendments to the town’s zoning law known as the Unified Development Bylaws. The changes were said to give more flexibility to people wanting to set up businesses in Chester.

The Select Board postponed action on a proposal that would allow “legacy” uses. In effect, if there had once been a use on a piece of land where current zoning does not allow that use, the owner of the property could cite that earlier use and go before the Development Review Board at a conditional use hearing and reclaim that use for that parcel. According to commission members, the owner would have to show that the use had a “benign history” and is part of the “town’s cultural history.”

Planning Commission member Peter Hudkins said that those abutting the property would have notice for the hearing and the applicant would have to meet all of the other requirements involved in getting a conditional use permit.

Until this year, a previous use of a property that no longer conforms with current zoning had two years of inactivity before that old use was void. But in an attempt to help the owners of the Baba a Louis Bakery build sell that property, the Select Board in January increased to five years the allowable period of inactivity.

In response to a question, Hudkins noted that the building is not necessary as the legacy would follow the land. He also said that uses aren’t confined to those allowed under previous zoning regulations, but rather all the way back to the 1700s.

Board chair Arne Jonynas wanted more time to think about the legacy use amendment saying "This opens up a big door"

Board chair Arne Jonynas wanted more time to think about the legacy use amendment saying, ‘This opens up a big door.’

“This opens up a big door,” said Jonynas, who felt that the interpretation of “benign” is subjective and noted that there have been “quarries and mines all over this town.”

“This comes back to ‘do you trust the DRB?'” asked Hudkins, who called the proposal a “tool for them to use.” Hudkins also noted that the change would not effect Act 250 and stormwater reviews.

Planning Commission member Tim Roper told the board that while he had voted for the legacy use, listening to the discussion “got my wheels turning.”

Roper went on to say that the second proposal — the adaptive reuse amendment — makes a lot of sense but that the Planning Commission is about to revisit the uses — permitted and conditional — and he was thinking that the legacy use amendment undermines that work by bringing in uses that the commission did not think were appropriate for that district.

Zoning Administrator Preston Bristow said that the state planning goals include compact village centers surrounded by rural land and that was part of the reasoning for more restrictive zoning in those rural areas. He noted that the former country store on Route 103 South near Sylvan Lane  and the Chat & Chew on Route 103 North, both of which  had been up for sale for years, are both zoned residential.  But he said, he has been contacted by people who have been interested in using the properties for business uses. The legacy use is a way to “get around” spot zoning those two properties.

That second proposal would allow for adaptive reuse of existing buildings no longer being used for their original purpose and would include uses not allowed in that district. An example might be a barn turned into a restaurant in a residential district where that use is not allowed. This proposal requires that a building exist, a conditional use hearing in front of the DRB and rehabilitation that would not change the exterior of the structure.

In the end, Jonynas said he wanted more time to think about the legacy use and the board voted to approve adaptive reuse. The board then recessed the hearing until its Wednesday, Oct. 5 hearing, when members would take up the subject again.



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