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Override cuts would leave police position unfilled for third year

One proposal to help balance the budget if the override fails is to not fill a vacant full-time officer’s position at the Police Department. The position was vacated when Sgt. John Coates retired in 2017. Police Chief Ed Denmark told the Press he had been trying to fill the position ever since with no luck. Denmark said that was finally about to change when the pandemic hit, but Town Administrator Tim Bragan has since put the position on his list of suggested items to cut from the budget if need be.

Bragan said he made the decision to add the vacant police position to the list of possible cuts based on its not being filled for over two years. “If we don’t have the ability to sustain it financially over the next few years, why fill it now and then have to lay someone off?” he said. 

There are currently two open positions in the Harvard Police Department. The second was created recently when Officer Tim Schaeffer resigned two months ago to take a job with the Boxborough police. That position will have to be filled, according to Bragan. “We’re one officer getting sick or injured away from disaster,” he said. Denmark agreed, saying “Right now, we’re at the bare minimum.” 

The town finally has two promising candidates, but Denmark said those officers are currently employed in other towns, and when the pandemic started, he could not in good conscience take them away, leaving those police departments short-handed. Both candidates are still interested in the job, he added, and he hopes to extend offers to them when things return a bit more to normal.

Over the past two years, Denmark said, the department has been fortunate enough to have the services of a fully trained officer who has been willing to step in and help cover shifts on a part-time basis. But he doesn’t know how long that situation will last. “Even if one officer were hired, we would still have 210 shifts a year covered by a single officer. That should not be happening. It goes against every training protocol we have.”

These days, Denmark said, it is even more critical that officers do not cover shifts alone. “There is a significant anti-police sentiment right now,” he said, which could put his officers in danger. “These people are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. It’s not fair to send them out by themselves on certain types of calls.”

He added that although his department hasn’t had a single excessive force complaint since he has been here, he worries that covering a shift with only one officer increases the possibility that the officer would need to use force if someone needed to be restrained.

Bragan told the Press that the public perception of adding a police officer at this time might not be good, given the talk of defunding police departments in various cities across the country. But Denmark said that’s not relevant here in Harvard. “If you want a model for community policing and positive relationships, we’re it,” he said. “And you still need to have a basic level of resources to provide services.”

As for why it has taken so long to replace Coates, Denmark said recruitment and retention of police officers is a national problem. Here in Harvard, he added, “We have a stringent hiring process.” In addition to the experience and background that Denmark looks for, “candidates have to fit our organization.” And the pay is not competitive. “Our last hire took a reduction in pay to come here,” he said. A few people that made the grade in the past two years ended up taking positions elsewhere, he said.

Denmark said he has made a counterproposal to Bragan, which involves delaying the purchase of a $45,000 vehicle for the second year in a row. “Bodies are more important than equipment,” he said. An additional $15,000 could be cut from the overtime budget if it is necessary to get to the $60,000 figure, Denmark added. “I’m not a complainer,” he said, “but everybody wants great service at bargain basement rates.”

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