Jul. 26—VERNON — The Town Council has unanimously agreed to fund liability insurance that normally would be an out-of-pocket expense for local police officers.
While the town has general liability insurance that covers all town employees for up to $1 million per incident, police officers have a secondary insurance policy through their union, the Vernon Police Association, which triggers after the town's coverage is exhausted, Town Administrator Michael Purcaro said. That secondary policy, which offers unlimited coverage, costs each officer $64 per year.
While the annual fee is affordable, Purcaro characterized the council's decision as "a little thing that sends a big signal" following the legislature's passage of a controversial police accountability law, which modified the state's use-of-force guidelines. He said Mayor Daniel Champagne, a retired police officer and state senator, initially proposed the idea.
"These are difficult times for recruitment of new officers and retention of good officers," he added. "Anything we can do to support our law enforcement personnel, to retain good officers, to recruit good officers is important from a public safety standpoint."
Champagne said the proposal was a reaction to what he characterized as low morale among police officers throughout the state.
"What we're trying to do is raise morale as much as possible," he said, adding that the state accountability law has created "just one problem after another," including in the area of recruitment.
"Trying to find more officers is difficult," he said. "We're trying to show them that they do have the support of the Town Council and we're trying to provide the safety and security they deserve."
Champagne added that the decision was made "for those officers who do their job correctly," and the town is "not rewarding bad behavior here."
Republican Councilwoman Julie Clay said the council made the decision as a way to "show our support for our treasured law enforcement." She said it is "vital to support them in this environment" in which "a few bad cops have ruined it for the majority of good cops."
Echoing other public officials, including Police Chief John Kelley, who expressed similar concerns when he was sworn in this month, Democratic Councilwoman Maryann Levesque also referenced retention and recruitment,
"At this point in time it's hard to retain good officers, and I think it's an incentive to retain them and maybe encourage others to join," she said.
Unaffiliated Councilwoman Pauline Schaefer said the decision was "something that we have to do in light of everything that's been happening."
There are about 50 sworn officers employed by the Police Department, meaning the town would pay about $3,200 in insurance fees this year, Purcaro said. The council's vote applies to only fees paid this year.
"I hope other towns and cities, especially our cities, do the same thing from a leadership standpoint and get behind our police departments," Purcaro said.
Kelley said today there are four vacancies, and a detective plans to retire at the end of August. While he said the department has had five vacancies before, recruitment is more difficult than it previously had been.
"The thing that concerns me the most is we're not getting the numbers of applicants that we're used to," he said. "When we have four or five vacancies and the applicant numbers just aren't there, that makes it difficult to find the right person."
Kelley said he is "very appreciative of (the council's) show of support to the men and women of the Police Department."
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