By PHILLIP BANTZ
SWANZEY — After nine years of investigating major crimes and specializing in cases involving children, a Swanzey police detective is slated to lose his job so the department can increase wages for its patrol officers, who are being poached by other agencies offering better pay.
“I’m not so much angry or upset as disappointed. I do a job that no one else here is trained to do. It also takes a lot more than training to do the job; you need a decent amount of experience,” said Paul Bertolami, whose position at the Swanzey Police Department is scheduled to be terminated by Dec. 31. He has already submitted a letter of resignation, effective Dec. 25.
Bertolami began his law enforcement career in 1983 with the N.H. State Police. He also worked for the Marlborough Police Department and N.H. Fish and Game Department before he was hired by the Swanzey Police Department in 2000 as a part-time detective and crime scene photographer.
“He’s one of the best investigators in the state regarding offenses against children,” said Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed, who has worked on many cases with Bertolami. “He is uniquely and rarely skilled at being able to talk to children, getting them to relax and trust him.”
Looking back on his time with Swanzey, Bertolami said he’ll never forget the 52-day-old baby who showed up at the pediatric ward with broken bones, some partially healed.
“Only days into his young life, he’d already suffered so much,” he said. “I photographed his injuries at the hospital. His dad was there with other family members and I managed to get a pretty good confession out of him in the four or five hours I was there.”
Police Chief Richard V.C. Busick 4th said he eliminated Bertolami’s position because he’s tired of losing well-trained, full-time patrol officers to other agencies.
He said his department, the second-largest in Cheshire County, is working with a tight budget and this was the only way he could offer competitive pay to his officers. He also eliminated a vacant animal control officer position.
“This was a tough, difficult decision and it will have a significant impact on the department. Detective Bertolami is one of the most talented investigators I’ve come across,” Busick said. “Now we’re going to have to take his caseload, along with the responsibilities of the animal control officer, and distribute it among others in the department.”
The annual wage Bertolami received, about $17,000, will also be distributed among the department’s 11 full-time patrol officers, who will receive a yearly pay increase of $1,200 to $3,000, according to Busick, who said he is not receiving a raise.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about our patrol officers. Swanzey hasn’t been competitive in terms of salary with other agencies of similar size,” he said. “Many departments start their officers out at higher salaries than what veteran patrol officers earn here in Swanzey.”
Swanzey’s patrol officers make $16 to $19.28 an hour, while patrol officers are paid $20.28 to $27.78 an hour in Jaffrey, $19.29 to $28.94 in Peterborough and $17.37 to $24.32 in Rindge, according to this year’s N.H. Local Government Center survey of wage, salary and benefits for municipalities.
In the past four years, at least four Swanzey officers have left the department for better paychecks at other police agencies, Busick said. Testing, hiring, certifying, training and equipping each new replacement officer can take more than seven months and cost about $20,000, he said.
“We’ve invested time and resources to get excellent officers, only to lose them to another agency for more money,” Busick said. “This needs to stop.”
When it comes to losing officers to better-funded agencies, Swanzey is not alone.
In Hinsdale, where patrol officers are paid $16.76 to $20.61 an hour, five officers have left in the past five years for other police agencies, predominantly Brattleboro and Keene, according to Chief Wayne T. Gallagher.
Patrol officers make $16.33 to $23.96 an hour in Brattleboro and $19.06 to $26.78 an hour in Keene, according to Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn and the local government center survey.
“In the history of the Hinsdale Police Department, we’ve only had one officer retire from here,” Gallagher said. “They get their training and certification and spend a few years here and then they leave. The people who come down here, they enjoy working here, but they can’t make a decent living.”
To make ends meet, many Hinsdale patrol officers moonlight as traffic directors for local construction companies, Gallagher said.
Patrol officers in Winchester are among the lowest paid in the Monadnock Region, earning $16.63 to $16.91 an hour, followed by Charlestown’s $16 to $17 an hour and Fitzwilliam’s $15.12 to $20.26 an hour, according to the local government center survey.
Because recruiting experienced officers is cheaper than hiring and training new ones, many police agencies offer sign-on bonuses in addition to pay raises to officers coming from other departments in New England.
“We’re always looking to hire certified officers,” said Wrinn, whose department offers $2,000 sign-on bonuses. “It’s truly a benefit when you hire someone who is already certified.”
Even as Busick works to retain the department’s patrol officers, one of his most valuable and experienced officers is on another area police agency’s short list for recruitment, he said. He declined to identify the officer or the agency seeking him.
Meanwhile, Busick knows he must eventually hire a full-time detective or pluck an officer from the department’s ranks and train him to become a detective to replace Bertolami. He’s also building the department’s budget for next year and has been working with the town’s three selectmen, who did not return messages seeking comment on the axing of Bertolami’s position.
“We’ll need to identify a full-time detective because we have a lot of investigations that require interviews and follow-ups. It’s definitely more specialized work,” Busick said. “But patrol is my big focus now. Patrol is the backbone of this organization. We need to keep our resources in patrol so we can respond to calls and have quality officers.”
While Busick prepares for the loss of his only detective, Bertolami will be searching for another law enforcement job in the region, preferably one that allows him to continue to help victimized children.
“Children live in a very simple world. That’s what I find so appealing about working with them — their innocence, their sense of things,” he said. “They’re very interesting little creatures.”
No matter where Bertolami ends up or what he ends up doing, he said he already knows he’ll miss working with the residents of Swanzey.
“What it all amounts to is this: I love the people in this town,” he said. “We have some of the best people in the state, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to help many of them.”