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Police deal with staffing issues

Town budgets stretch protection levels

Daniel Charette (click for larger version)
August 05, 2009
Even the police occasionally wonder where a cop is when you need one.

Of course, in their case, that's usually not because something bad just happened, although they see it then, too. It's usually because their town lacks money to hire the officers they'd like to have, especially in this economy.

"If money allowed, 36 officers works here very well, but I asked for 34," and now have 32, said Southbridge Chief Daniel Charette. "But if you have a department of 30 people, you never really have 30 people. That's a management reality; it starts chewing away very quickly."

In some respects, however, Southbridge is in a very good position compared to nearby towns. Unlike most of them, it has a rather large auxiliary corps — nearly 20, after five were appointed Monday — who can handle various non-investigatory tasks such as crowd and traffic control.

Oxford is hoping to start such a unit early next year, for similar reasons, Chief Michael Boss said. His 20-person department has been seen fairly stable staffing for years, but Oxford has started seeing a boom in development — first commercial, now residential — that concerns him.

"We will have to start looking at how to pay for some more officers," he said, later noting he "could use four more. That would be ideal for me; it'd give me the opportunity to have two full-time detectives."

Although his budget is "going down quite a bit this year," he's not planning on layoffs if possible. But he observed "that doesn't mean I'm going to be able to pay my electric bill this year" and still needs to find a way to fund vehicle maintenance, since he's not getting new ones.

As it is today, almost all of the region's police forces are somewhat understaffed; they have an officer-to-citizen ratio that's above the national average (see chart). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) from 2004, departments serving communities with 10,000 to 25,000 people average one officer per 500 residents; the nationwide average for communities of all sizes is one per 400.

In practice, however, that measures full departments; not all of them are on duty at any one time, so the real ratio is much higher. As a discussion thread at the officer.com forum on this issue notes, many factors play into it.

"The [citizen] to cop ratio would probably be too painful to really divulge," said one writer, identifying himself as "Keith B." from Colorado. "… [A]s always, you have to factor in days off, vacations, personal leave and sick days ... and split up your forces for multiple shifts in a 24 hour period. In my small town, from 0200 to 0600 hours [2 to 6 a.m.], I'm on patrol alone three out of four shifts per week. That makes the citizen to officer ratio 5500 to one, ME!"

Typically, the highest ratios occur when most people are sleeping, as "Keith" noted, or in widespread rural areas that all-but-lack local police departments. The BJS data shows the country as a whole had 731,903 full-time sworn officers (defined as having arrest authority) in 2004. Of them, 61 percent worked for local departments of various sizes, with a majority working for the largest departments.

Over time, those departments having been dealing with a lot of the same kinds of issues, but which ones are most common vary slightly from place to place. In Southbridge, for example, Charette has said the department's focus has been on juvenile delinquency and drug crimes, but police logs seem to record some rise in domestic violence and property crimes with the worsening economy.

Next door, Sturbridge tends to have a disproportionate number of traffic problems and accidents, but nobody assigned to full-time traffic duty, Detective Mark Saloio said.

"Based on population, we have a somewhat reasonably-sized department," he said. "The loophole is that we have such a high transient population [due to tourists] that increases our calls for service. … We could take five extra positions and have no problem filling them."

Some departments have added to their own workload in recent years by taking on a variety of community service roles, including such activities as providing self-defense, DARE and other education, running Cops and Kids and aiding people with lockouts and other car trouble. Saloio said that makes up about half of Sturbridge's on-duty time, and it's probably similar in other towns.

"It's funny sometimes what people call us for, things I'd never think to call the police for," said Dudley Sgt. Pamela Daniels. As an example, she gave "a cat dead in the road."

She also noted the economy has prompted more calls for "things that aren't police matters, but more civil matters," as well as an increase in restraining order requests and drunken incidents.

Daniels said Dudley has lost three full-timers in about five years, and although it has nine part-timers with arrest authority, they don't have the same level of training the full-timers do.

Next door in Webster, Chief Timothy Boss is in exactly the opposite position. He hired one officer two years ago and recently got federal stimulus funding for two more. The grant pays their salaries and benefits for three years and was Webster's first grant-funded hire since the mid-1990s, Bent said.

Oxford and Southbridge also applied but were rejected; they're seeking similar money via other grants. Such grants have had a significant effect on department budgets over the years, and even those who don't have grantwriters tend to apply for whatever they can, be it money for staff or equipment.

Essentially, they do it because they have to.

"People want to see more police officers walking, and I'd like to see that, too," said Bent. "When I started 30 years ago, that was the era of the walking beat. History repeats itself, and we'd love to get back to that, but the increase in call volume makes it difficult."

When asked what the community as a whole could do to ease some of the extra burden in lieu of increased budget funds, local officers generally agreed that such duties are part of the job. Daniels and Saloio said citizens could help by being more alert to what's going on in their neighborhoods and willing to report things that seem wrong while paying attention to their own actions.

Boss agreed, noting he recently talked to some senior citizens interested in volunteering to help the department but had to turn them down.

"I can't even have community service people come in because I'd need to have someone in here to watch them 24/7," he said. "Say, for example, you tell us you're going on vacation. Do you want just anybody knowing your house is empty? We have to be careful who has access to information like that."

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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