WEARE — There was no mincing of words when Police Chief John Velecca spoke to voters in support of hiring two full-time police officers during the deliberative session on Saturday, and he said that if he’s going to bring about wholesale change at the Weare Police Department, he’s going to need the resources to do it.
“Eleven officers, guys, is not working,” Velecca told the crowd of around 50 residents at the middle school.
But the finance committee recommends that the town wait another year before bringing on more officers, arguing that Velecca, who was hired last fall, needs more time to “assess current staff, future needs and the culture of the Weare community.”
In March, voters will be asked to support the hiring of two full-time police officers at a cost of $119,525. The new officers, if approved, would bring the department’s roster up to 14 full-time cops, including himself, said Velecca. Velecca said that based on his research of towns similar to Weare throughout New England, he should have closer to 17 to 20 full-time officers, especially if townspeople want coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Recently, Velecca said he eliminated coverage in town from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., and is relying on state police to fill the gap if something goes wrong during those hours. Prior to cutting back the hours, Velecca said the overnight shift was often manned by an officer working the second half of a 20-hour day — and being paid overtime for 10 hours for doing so.
“It’s just not feasible to run a department 24/7 with 11 officers,” he said. And while many towns benefit from mutual aid from other communities, Weare is largely on its own because those relationships with other departments either weren’t forged or fell apart during previous administrations.
Velecca also said that having more officers on board means better supervision, something that’s been sorely lacking in the department in recent years and has led to officers making “bad decisions” that have increased liability to the town.
“Officers have been robbed of leadership and direct supervision,” said Velecca.
In the last year, the department’s three highest ranking officers have either retired or have been terminated. On May 30, elected Chief Gregory Begin opted to retire early instead of serving the remainder of his two-year term. In March, Lt. James Carney was placed on paid administrative leave and accused of a number of infractions, including sexual relations with an employee, transporting alcohol in a police vehicle, and getting in physical altercations.
Though Carney, through his lawyer Tony Soltani, vehemently denied the accusations, the former lieutenant retired on July 1. And in November, Sgt. Joe Kelley was terminated by the board of selectmen for what Velecca called violations of department policies and procedures. Kelley denies those allegations.
Resident Frank Campana argued against the two new positions, saying that the police officers can manage themselves, and echoing the finance committee’s view that the chief needs more time to really understand what’s needed in Weare. Campana also said that part-time officers could fill the gaps.
But Velecca has done away with the policy of having part-time officers on the department because he doesn’t believe they can fully commit to the community. He also said that having more full-time officers will greatly reduce the department’s overtime expenses, stating that last year, the department spent $121,325 over the budgeted allotment for overtime.
Resident Marjorie Burke said that as a mother of a police officer, she believes they need strong supervision, and Barbara Hibbard, a resident of South Weare, said she’d like to see her end of town have more support.
“We need more officers,” she said.