Weare deliberative session focuses on its police department

Last modified: 2/2/2014 12:02:00 AM
About 50 voters gathered yesterday at Weare’s annual deliberative session to discuss how the town will spend its portion of taxpayer money in the upcoming year. At the center of the discussion were several articles that would provide additional financial support to a police department that has suffered harsh criticism in the past year.

Weare police Chief John Velleca told residents his department is struggling as a result of its reputation, a lack of supervision and low staffing. Velleca and the board of selectmen are recommending voters add two full-time officers, but the finance committee is opposed to the hiring.

“Right now, 11 officers, guys, is not working,” Velleca said. He addressed the crowd from a microphone where he stood in the center of the cafeteria at Weare Middle School.

The deliberative session was held to allow voters a chance to discuss the 31 articles on the proposed 2014 warrant. Voting on the warrant will be March 11. The town’s proposed operating budget – $5,110,673 – is one of the articles, which is an increase of 2.25 percent from last year. Board of Selectman Chairman Thomas Clow said a large portion of the increase is to cover higher liability insurance for the town as a result of lawsuits brought against the police department.

If all articles on the warrant were adopted by voters, the town’s portion of the property tax rate would be $4.47 per $1,000 of assessed value. The current tax rate in Weare is $3.30 per $1,000 assessed value.

The construction of a safer and more efficient public works building, the replacement of the Peaslee Road bridge, and a new ambulance are on the proposed warrant. But the primary focus of residents at yesterday’s session was on the police department.

The town provides funding for 11 officers, but at present, there are only five full-time officers available to provide emergency response and other services to the community, such as traffic control, Velleca said after the meeting. Of the 11 officers in the department, four are in training and two are on restricted duty, he said. Velleca said he expects all 11 officers to be available for shifts by the end of the year.

Because the police are not operating with all 11 officers, finance committee member Neal Kurk, who is also a state representative and 40-year resident of Weare, said he feels it is appropriate to wait to see how well the chief implements his new policies before providing additional funding to the department.

“Let’s see what he can do,” Kurk said. “I don’t want to propose marriage on the basis of a first date.”

Kurk said he welcomes the chief and does not want to give the opinion that the finance committee is against the department.

“This group of officers are interested in good policing rather than bulking up their paychecks,” Kurk said.

Velleca said he respectfully disagreed with the finance committee’s decision, saying they had no experience with policing, and that even with the two additional proposed officers, Weare would be underserved. He said a community Weare’s size should have between 16 and 18 full-time officers, according to industry standards set by the FBI. Those standards take into account local crime rates.

Too few officers available has resulted in the moving of the school resource officer to patrol duty, Velleca said. He has also been forced to shut the station down from 3 to 7 a.m. daily.

The chief said townspeople cannot rely on getting policing assistance from outside communities.

“I hate to break the news to anybody, but we don’t get mutual aid,” Velleca said.

Clarifying that statement after the meeting, Velleca said there has been some help from the state police, but that help is promised only on a short-term basis until Weare’s staffing levels increase.

“The state police have been gracious enough to help,” Velleca said. “They don’t have to.”

Most communities in the state work on a system of mutual aid agreements, which means one town’s police and fire personnel will assist a neighboring town’s when needed. While Weare technically has such agreements in place, Velleca said his department isn’t receiving any mutual aid other than from the state police because of its poor reputation.

That poor reputation is a result of trouble within the department before Velleca was hired. Officers have been fired and put on leave in the last year. There have been federal lawsuits against the department, a lieutenant was accused of threatening other employees, and, most recently, two officers shot a man as he fled the scene of a drug bust. That man later died, and those officers are being investigated by the state attorney general. Overtime pay has also been scrutinized.

“Everybody’s kind of hands-off,” Velleca said. “We don’t get the luxury of getting assistance.”

Velleca said he has been told some communities have a written policy that they do not provide mutual aid to Weare, but he has never seen such a document.

Without mutual aid, his officers are left alone, Velleca told voters.

“Why more cops? It’s an officer safety issue,” he said. “They’re by themselves. If a situation turns ugly . . . if he can’t get to his radio, he’s by himself.”

Still, the finance committee, which is comprised of community volunteers, is opposed to the additional officers, at least for this year, voting against approval for the article, 4-3.

The new police chief has brought a renewed energy to the department,” finance Chairwoman Kate Cloud said to the crowd. “Before we add any officers, the finance committee feels it would be appropriate to wait a year to allow the chief and townspeople additional time to assess current staff, future needs and the culture of the Weare community.”



(Daira Cline can be reached at 369-3306 or dcline@cmonitor.com.)




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