The Winchester police department has a staffing problem. That’s not news to anyone paying attention over the past few months. But while many of those problems stem from apparent disciplinary or misconduct issues that may take time to sort out, it’s a mystery why the town can’t be more forthcoming to the public right now about the current staffing situation.

Winchester’s police department is not unusual in facing staffing shortages. Most municipal departments have struggled in their hiring as higher pay rates in other states coupled with the high certification bar for training and standards have slowed the pipeline of applicants to replace retiring officers and fill vacancies. Winchester’s staffing situation, though, has been exacerbated by several issues involving individual officers that have bedeviled the department amidst its transition to leadership under Chief Erik Josephson. He took the reins last October, having been named to replace Mike Tollett, whose contract the selectboard chose not to renew in early 2021, for reasons it never shared with town residents.

Josephson has since gone to the selectboard to seek permission to fire two officers, Sgt. Kristopher Fox and Lt. James Fisher, for alleged disciplinary issues. The selectboard agreed in January with the chief in Fox’s case, but has not yet made a determination in Fisher’s. The pending Fisher matter, however, is further complicated for seemingly being entangled with the case of a third officer, Josh Edson, who on Feb. 11 resigned and surrendered his police certification in an agreement with the state Attorney General’s Office, to avoid facing charges for witness tampering. It’s a confusing and troubling situation, and there are many questions that need answering as the Fisher matter plays out.

But, even beyond the murkiness of the individual officers’ cases, there’s a fundamental question townspeople deserve an immediate answer to: What is the current full- and part-time staffing of the police department they are funding? It’s a simple question, and yet the town government is treating the answer as a state secret.

At Fox’s public hearing in January, Josephson stated the Winchester Police Department is authorized to have seven full- and three part-time officers, but then had only two full-time and one part-time officer. In early February, Town Administrator Karey Miner told The Sentinel the town had four officers, including Fisher, who can conduct patrols, noting that Josephson, who served in Massachusetts before coming to Winchester, is still in the process of getting his New Hampshire certification and cannot yet conduct patrols. And for at least 10 days following Edson’s departure from the town police force, Winchester’s website listed five full-time officers, including Edson and Fox.

Given the confusion, the public is owed clarification regarding the department’s staffing situation. Thus far, Josephson has refused to respond to multiple inquiries from The Sentinel. With no opportunity to discuss the matter informally, The Sentinel had no choice but to submit a formal right-to-know law request for the information. This got bucked to the town’s attorney, who rather unhelpfully responded by pointing to the officer listing in the town reports on the Winchester website, the most recent of which is at least a year out of date and lists nine full-time officers, including former Chief Tollett. Otherwise, the formal response was, astoundingly, the town would require an additional 30 days to determine whether it’s required to disclose the information.

Really? Thirty days (plus, presumably, attorney fees) just to decide whether to make public a current listing of full- and part-time officers? There’s hardly anything sensitive in making that information public, and townsfolk are entitled to know how their police department is staffed.

The state’s right-to-know law generally does not require information to be kept confidential. Quite the contrary, its premise is that the more public disclosure, the better, and the law outlines certain exemptions where public bodies can choose — but are not required — not to disclose. Even if after 30 days the town’s lawyer comes up with a reason why Winchester is not required to provide the information, the town will still be permitted — as it is now — to disclose it. The town should immediately disclose the information, and should have promptly in response to informal requests.

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