In tiny Blandford, frustrations over equipment and working conditions prompted police resignations
The Blandford Police Department’s best cruiser had no air conditioning for a time, and the driver’s seat was stuck in a reclined position. Officers had no radio communication and often used their cellphones to communicate. Their bulletproof vests were expired and ill-fitting.
And the officers were paid $14 to $15 an hour, when the median hourly rate for a police officer nationwide was more than twice that last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joined by interim police Chief Roberta Sarnacki, all four members of the town’s police department resigned en masse Monday in protest, citing “unsafe working conditions” and the inherent dangers of the job.
“Would you put your lives on the line in these conditions? I don’t think so,” wrote Sarnacki and former officers Chris Anciello, Gage Terlik, and Krysten Scapin in a signed statement.
The officers pointed to several recent police officer shootings, including the July 27 shooting of two officers in Falmouth.
“We regret leaving the town without a town police force, but we have no choice given the situation we face,” their statement said.
The abrupt loss of the entire police department shocked town officials and drew national attention to the town of about 1,200 just west of Springfield.
“This was thrown at us last minute and we certainly didn’t plan to not have a police department,” said Cara Letendre, chairwoman of the Blandford Board of Selectmen, who said she found out about the resignations via e-mail Monday.
She said the police department did not fully communicate its frustrations to town officials before the officers resigned, but she said any issues would have been discussed if officers had reached out earlier. She added the cruiser with the broken seat had been repaired recently, as had another with bad brakes.
But she acknowledged that the town lacked resources for the department.
“We just don’t have the finances to support. Small towns are struggling sustainability-wise,” Letendre said.
The Massachusetts State Police promised to maintain a strong presence in Blandford. Letendre estimated that State Police normally responded to about 85 percent of Blandford’s police calls, though she said the board is still gathering data.
The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department is also providing assistance.
None of the three resigned officers could be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Sarnacki responded to the Globe’s request for comment by e-mail with the press release attached.
The town has been discussing options for restructuring the department, including restaffing, merging departments with nearby Chester, or getting rid of it altogether, Letendre said.
Sarnacki, the town’s interim chief, “was vocally not in agreement with the possibility of regionalizing,” Letendre said.
The resignations came a week after a July 23 meeting in which the three police officers showed up to voice confidence in Sarnacki, who had joined the department on a 30-day contract that expired July 30.
The selectmen nevertheless decided to post the chief’s job. The board hadn’t done so publicly when they hired Sarnacki and wanted to consider a broader array of candidates, Letendre said.
Letendre said she urged Sarnacki to reapply for her position, but that Sarnacki was frustrated.
Letendre also said she asked the officers at that meeting if they had any additional concerns to bring to the board, and no one did.
In their press release, the four Blandford police officers said that former police chief Kevin M. Hennessey, who resigned from his post at the end of June, had been asking for funding for a new cruiser for five years, but had been turned down each time.
“The past year has presented a host of challenges to the Blandford Police Department,” Hennessey wrote in the town’s 2016-2017 annual report.
“The department had endured a significant budget reduction along with staffing reductions.”
Letendre said she was only aware of concerns about the police cruisers, which Sarnacki brought up at the selectboard’s July 16 meeting, minutes show. Daniel Ilnicky, chief of the Chester police, said his department has only seven members, and that the concerns raised by the Blandford Police Department are problems that all rural police forces face.
Ilnicky said the next interim police chief in Blandford will have to develop a plan to deal with the department’s issues. He said there could be creative ways to address them: For example, he said, they could apply for a federal grant to supplement the cost of body armor.
“I don’t think they are resignable [problems], but that’s a decision that the interim chief and those officers made,” Ilnicky said. “I don’t know if I would have made that same decision.”
David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said that troopers have been providing Blandford with assistance on a daily basis for decades even before the abrupt resignations.
The State Police cover the town on the overnight shift and assist as needed on other shifts, Procopio said, adding that the State Police are the primary law enforcement agency, “either around the clock or for certain daily shifts,” in 52 towns in Western Massachusetts.
All 911 calls from Blandford for police assistance are now being routed to the State Police Barracks at 90 Westfield Road in Russell.
“We will continue to do this for as long as necessary.” Procopio said in an e-mail.