If the Washington Township Committee chooses not to make any new hires for the local police department in the coming months, staffing numbers on the force will be at their lowest levels in more than a decade.
The force currently has 28 active members – from rookie officers to the chief of police – with one more officer on medical leave.
Officer Susan Gilligan, along with Lt. Art Adams will both depart from the force via resignation and retirement, respectively, effective Nov. 1. Chief of Police Michael Bailey is eligible to retire as well, and Sgt. Earl Barnes will be eligible for retirement come July 2014.
If no adjustments are made to staffing levels, and all eligible members take up on their retirement dates, the department will have just 25 members by the end of next summer.
“It’s a serious conversation we need to have,” said Vice Mayor and Police Commissioner Bill Roehrich. “We may even need to talk about putting three (in the academy) as early as January.”
Roehrich and his governing body colleagues are expected to discuss the staffing issue at the Oct. 21 regular meeting. Decisions need to be made quickly, however, as there are only two police academies per year, beginning in January and July.
Those academies last about six months, and per Washington Township procedures, once a new officer comes out of the academy, they patrol with a more senior officer for three months, and then are shadowed by a senior officer for up to two more months, according to Bailey. All tolled, it takes nearly a year for a Washington Township Police officer to be completely road-ready, Bailey said.
“If we stay at 28 (officers), there’s really no wiggle room,” Roehrich said. “And when we’re low, now you’re looking at how much overtime is being expended to cover shifts versus the cost of a fulltime officer each year.”
Department Duties and Dollars
The Washington Township Police Department is set up in a pyramid structure. At the top is the chief, and currently there are three lieutenants serving as administrators. The retiring Adams will bring that down to two lieutenants. Once Bailey retires, one of the remaining two lieutenants – Mark Niemynski or Doug Compton – could be elevated to that position, or the committee could look outside the department, Roehrich said.
As of now, the four administrators are responsibility for a slew of duties, from acting as a liaison to the county communications department to records and firearms checks. The administrators also are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department, such as scheduling, media relations, overseeing new hires, and participating in court duties weekly.
Below them are four sergeants and four corporals, considered senior officers. At least one senior officer must serve on each patrol shift, Bailey said. If that shift’s senior officer calls out sick or can’t work for whatever reason, a senior officer from a different patrol group must take over – even if they are off, Bailey said.
The department’s patrol unit has four squads consisting of five members. There is a three-officer-per-squad minimum on the road at all times, and the shifts last 12 hours.
With the headcount at its current level, coupled with the structure the department uses, finding officers to pick up extra shifts can be difficult.
“Ten years ago, there was more road construction going on, more building, and more guys needed out there,” Bailey said. “We never had a problem finding someone to fill in. Nowadays it’s hard to get that. We used to have 10-hour shifts. Now we have 12-hour shifts and these guys are working all day. It’s also required that an officer have eight hours 'rest' time between shifts. So if an officer is coming in late or someone on duty needs to stay for whatever reason, we’re restricted in how long (a covering officer) is here.”
Covering a geographic area of nearly 45 square miles is no small task for the patrol units either.
In August 2012, a suicidal man was reported missing and dangerous. Police found him in a cornfield off Turtleback Road in the southwestern section of the township. Because of the nature of the incident, three officers were needed to find and subdue the individual.
But what if a major emergency occurred at the same time in the northeastern portion of the township?
“In situations like that, there needs to be mutual aid from the surrounding towns until our guys can get there to take over,” Bailey said. Mutual aid, depending on location of an incident, can come from Mt. Olive, Hackettstown, Mansfield Township or Chester.
Beyond the patrol unit is the detective bureau, which consists of three detectives. While they are in charge of casework, Bailey said they can be moved to the road in an emergency situation.
“We can move them around when needed, but we try not to,” Bailey said. “If they’re working on cases and doing interviews, you don’t want to interrupt that.”
Rounding out the department is a single traffic officer. It’s that officer’s duties that Bailey would like to see get some aid. The department topped out at 38 members about a decade ago, and while the reduction in staff has changed many services – D.A.R.E. no longer exists, nor does National Night Out; initiatives given time and effort by full time officers – Bailey said the department has made do.
“We’ve been working well with 28 officers,” Bailey said. “We’ve had to figure it out. I do think that extra traffic officer, making it 29, would be better.”
The township recently approved a new three-year commitment to cover the three-square mile area of Califon Borough as well, spreading its territory.
In 2013, the total operating cost of the police department is expected to be $3,999,412.37. That includes salary and wages ($2,877,495); estimated share of social security ($220,128.37), overtime expenditures ($75,235.00); police cars ($99,000); pension contributions ($651,224); and budgeted capital ($76,330). It does not include health costs.
The nearly $4 million line item accounts for 25.33-percent of the municipal budget, which totals $15,787,680.06, according to administrator Andrew Coppola.
The municipal tax makes up 16-percent of Washington Township residents’ total tax bill in 2013, resulting in the police department accounting for approximately four-percent of the residents' overall tax bill.
How many officers should the township hire in the coming year, considering retirements and resignations? None? One? Two? Three? More? Tell us in the comments.