Police in need of more officers

Despite shortage, situation isn't threat to safety, chief says

July 12, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

In the last several months the Howard County Police Department often had difficulty putting enough officers on patrol, according to department records and officers.

The department requires a minimum of 24 officers patrolling the county at any given time, but during the last six months the department regularly had two or three fewer officers than needed during a 12-hour shift.

Police administrators say while the shortages were higher than usual, they were not a threat to the safety of the public or the officers.

During a staffing shortage, the remaining officers' beats are rearranged to cover the vacancies, often meaning that officers are pulled away from rural western Howard, which normally has the fewest number of calls for service, say officials from the Howard County Police Officers Association, the police union.

Police Chief Wayne Livesay said all 911 calls have been and will be answered promptly, and police departments are always adjusting staffing numbers, depending on the demand for a given day.

"I would categorize [the department's staffing shortages] as a concern," he said. "We will not do anything that will put anyone in danger."

Livesay said 17 new officers will alleviate staff shortages. Thirteen officers graduated from the academy and began patrolling June 22. The department also recruited four officers from neighboring jurisdictions.

Those additions increased the number of officers to 327, said Sgt. Morris Carroll, police spokesman.

But members of the police union said the recruits are only a short-term solution. Cpl. Daniel Besseck, the union vice president, said he believes the problem will arise again in three months, when officers are promoted from patrol, resign or move to specialized units.

"What they did was plug the holes," Besseck said. "This isn't going to go away until we are staffed properly."

To eliminate staffing problems and maintain the department's specialized units, the county needs about 340 officers, said Cpl. John Paparazzo, union president.

"Every day there are not enough police officers to staff the beats," Paparazzo said.

Since Jan. 1, the most vacancies occurred between 6: 30 p.m and 6: 30 a.m. on Memorial Day weekend -- May 30 and 31 -- when three officers didn't work their entire shift and four officers worked partial shifts -- meaning seven of 24 shifts were not filled at some point, according to police records.

The 24-beat scheduling system is designed to have each officer handle about 4 percent of the workload. When there are fewer officers, the others must pick up the additional load.

During the Memorial Day weekend, a robbery occurred at the High's Store off Route 97 in Glenwood.

"I don't know if you can say there is a correlation, but had all the beats been filled, it might have been deterred," said Besseck. "We just don't know."

County Executive James N. Robey, the previous police chief, described the situation was "unacceptable" when a reporter showed him department staffing reports for May 30 and 31. Later, he said he is confident the department's leadership is making the right adjustments.

Because only 2 percent of police calls are from the county's rural western end, it is often the first area where staffing is reduced, prompting some to argue that this leaves the area in more danger.

"The good thing is we can adjust," said Paparazzo. "The bad thing is if you happen to live in the western end and need police. How long will it take?"

"I am very concerned about it," said Allan H. Kittleman, the Republican county councilman representing the western part of the county.

A year and a half ago, the department switched to a new schedule designed to reduce staffing problems. Instead of working four 9 1/2-hour days a week, officers have three 12-hour days, creating fewer shifts to fill.

Paparazzo says the new schedule does not have enough overlap during shift changes that occur each morning and night at 6: 30 and 8: 30.

Carroll said the new schedule works and that the real problem is officers who use leave inappropriately, making it difficult for administrators to fill all the beats. Officers work about 15 12-hour days a month. They earn between 36 and 42 days off each year, 12 of which are sick leave.

"What's really causing it is people calling in sick at the last minute," Livesay said.

The department is now examining ways to ensure officers are using their sick leave appropriately, including instituting a new sick-leave policy and investigating officers who frequently call in sick at the last minute, Livesay said.

To help alleviate shortages, on June 22 officials increased from 24 to 26 the number of officers assigned to work each shift on weekends. That way the department can respond to last-minute absences and still meet its minimum staffing requirements.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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