Most newspapers do not publish the entire police log. They pick out the juicy stuff—sex offenders, drug busts, fatal car crashes. Things you might consider legitimate police work—if you had not started to wonder, given recent evidence, whether any police work is legitimate.
But setting aside the question of police violence, if we want to decide whether to defund the police, a little, a lot, or altogether, we need to know what they do all day.
Over the years I have monitored this information in the excellent Vermont weekly News & Citizen, which covers Lamoille County, in the north-central part of the state. The News & Citizen, which has been publishing continuously since 1881, reports on everything from high school honor rolls and wandering bears to taxes, candidates, and, recently, local Black Lives Matter marches and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—for instance, a front-page photo of a parking lot filled with cars waiting for free food.
And the News & Citizen informs readers on how their tax dollars are being spent, minute by minute, day by day, on law enforcement. If that’s what you want to call it.
Here are some recent entries from the Morristown Police blotter, as summarized by the News & Citizen:
May 9 at 6:10 p.m., a person was preaching in the Morrisville Plaza parking lot; the individual agreed to relocate the service.
May 15 at 10:06 PM, a copy of a drinking ticket that had been mailed to someone was found taped to a rock outside the police station.
May 17 at 6:12 PM, a man was reported to be laughing, talking to himself, and howling near the Old Fishing Hole on Bridge Street; he was gone when police arrived.
May 29 at 12: 41 PM, a 4th Street resident was worried about her adult daughter, who she hadn’t heard from in a while. Police tracked her down, and she called her mom.
The county sheriff blotter records a similar mix of urgent situations: “Responding to reports of an odd odor in Johnson Village, police found a man in the basement using spray paint to hydro-dip his hat.”
A shopping cart is rescued from under an overpass and a “missing” two-year-old from under a desk. Animals appear frequently in the logs: beagles barking at night, a dead raccoon, a woman chasing alligators in her neighbor’s pond.
A substantial number of callers are people angry with other people, worried parents, and busybodies who are not busy enough.
Scattered among these reports are DUIs, opiate overdoses, and thefts—but not many. A certain “transient”—one of the few people referred to by name—is regularly picked up for petty larceny and “trespassing” in local businesses. A judge arraigned the man on ten charges at once and imposed $1,000 bail, with release conditioned on his procuring a guardian and “a place to live under curfew,” neither of which the detainee had. The prosecutor was “satisfied.” In sum, a typical misuse of the criminal legal system.
In Morrisville, the county’s commercial center and largest village (which is located in the town of Morristown), more than 12 percent of the residents live in poverty. Yet in 2019, the town spent over $3.54 million on the police department. The police chief was the highest-paid municipal employee, with an annual salary of almost $96,000. The department also employed eight officers, a dispatcher, an administrative assistant, and a dog.
Thanks to a law allowing sheriffs to complement their pay by freelancing for other clients, Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr.—in office since 2001—earned $67,951 on top of his salary of $77,672 in 2017. Sheriffing, noted the weekly Seven Days, is a “lucrative business.”
To some people “Defund the Police” means “fund the police less” and schools, health care, housing, and parks more. Others want to eliminate police appropriations entirely and build community-based public safety, from civilian “violence interrupters” to restorative justice circles addressing anything from noise complaints to assaults. The police don’t want to be defunded, of course, but many say they’d like to be relieved of duties they have neither the skill nor, in many instances, the inclination to assume—not just investigating odd odors and dead raccoons but responding to mental health crises and dealing, somehow, with homelessness.
And even where the police will not be defunded, people can get used to pausing before they call 911 and considering the cops, as one California organizer put it, the “last responders.”
Lamoille County may not be perfectly representative of the U.S., but it’s not atypical either. And a reader of the News & Citizen would have to conclude that the taxpayers—like taxpayers elsewhere?—are wasting their money. Though Morristown might want to keep the dog.