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The two Dracut Police Department cruisers destroyed by fire on Sept. 15. PHOTO COURTESY OF DRACUT POLICE DEPARTMENT
The two Dracut Police Department cruisers destroyed by fire on Sept. 15. PHOTO COURTESY OF DRACUT POLICE DEPARTMENT

DRACUT — The current staffing level at the Dracut Police Department is unsustainable, but to bring the numbers up to par could take several years. That would seem to be the conclusion drawn from Police Chief Peter Bartlett’s remarks to the Board of Selectmen’s subcommittee on public safety Tuesday night.

State guidelines recommend a police force of 57 in a town the size of Dracut. Right now, there are 40 officers. The town has committed to adding two officers a year. Right now there is funding to send four trainees to the police academy and a commitment to add another two.

The public safety subcommittee meeting with the chief was called as a result of an alleged arson fire on Sept. 15 that torched two police cruisers while the police station was unstaffed. Subcommittee members are Selectmen Chair Alison Genest and Selectman Joe DiRocco.

At the regular selectmen’s meeting that followed, Selectman Tony Archinski asked for a report at the next meeting on the fire. He asked that it be complete and contain only facts “not opinion or blame.”

Town Manager Ann Vandal said she would have the report but cautioned that the incident is still under criminal investigation so she may be limited in what she can make public.

In addition to no one being in the station the night of the fires, a $40,000 security fence around the station and parking lot is incomplete, allowing easy access into the parking lot. There is disagreement between Bartlett and Vandal on reasons why the fence’s electronic gate isn’t finished and is therefore inoperable.

At the subcommittee meeting, Bartlett said it takes more than a year to get a candidate through the training process and patrolling Dracut streets and neighborhoods solo.

As he has several times in the past, Bartlett said that the problem arises because the town’s budgeting process, the time required to complete background checks, and the deadline for enrolling at the Police Academy in Lowell are out of sync.

The town’s annual budget process for the next fiscal year doesn’t start until December or January, and Bartlett feels that this schedule doesn’t enable him to begin bringing candidates on board.

The police need to run a thorough background investigation, including medical and psychological evaluations. By the time the evaluations are complete it is too late to enroll the candidates in the Lowell Police Academy, which starts in early June each year.

Deputy Chief Dave Chartrand also spoke at the meeting and a number of Dracut Police officers were in the room. In fact, the meeting was originally scheduled for a conference room but had to be moved to the room where selectmen hold their regular meetings.

“We don’t want to make a 32-year mistake,” Chartrand said, explaining the reason for the lengthy evaluations. And the process is complicated by the current staff shortage because background checks take officers away from their regular duties.

“Officer safety is very important to me,” Bartlett said. But the staffing level means that three officers are assigned to a shift, and in a community the size of Dracut that means the shift supervisor is often out of the Loon Hill Road police headquarters answering emergency calls. That was the case the night of the fire that destroyed two cruisers.

“Officers are being asked to work double shifts. This is a shell game trying to get guys to work these shifts,” Bartlett said. “Officer wellness is one of my top priorities.”

Chartrand said the current staffing levels restrict opportunity for officers to move ahead in their career, affecting motivation and commitment.

What Chartrand called “forced overtime” could present liability problems for the town. The deputy chief suggested developing a five-year plan for increasing the size of the police force.

DiRocco challenged Bartlett’s opinion that he does not have a commitment from Town Manager Ann Vandal because funding isn’t guaranteed soon enough in the process.

“Right now, she’s committed to four new officers and is willing to do two more,” DiRocco said. “This conversation has to be between you and her.”

After the meeting, Bartlett was asked why he seems attached to the Lowell Police Academy. There are others throughout the state that start at different times. The next scheduled academy is in Cambridge starting in January. Another nearby academy is at Northern Essex Community College, but that does not have a starting date yet for 2022. In 2021, the NECC date was only a week after Lowell’s start date.

Bartlett said it is the quality and convenience of the Lowell program that inclines him to send candidates to it.

Asked also about the possibility of transfers from other departments, he said the previous town manager put a moratorium on transfers. He said he would talk to Vandal about changing that policy.

But James Duggan, the prior town manager, intended the moratorium to apply only to transfers out of the department.  A transfer between departments does require the sign off of each police chief so that might complicate any effort by Dracut to recruit new officers.

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