Though departmental costs are increasing, attrition has brought the force down to fewer than 40 sworn officers. And it looks likely the decline will continue without a hiring spree in the next two years.
By James Kleimann
June 17, 2013
The promotion of two officers will help the Ridgewood Police Department plug holes to its supervisory structure, but the benefits of two additional hires will be non-existent in 2013. And unless the town acts – and soon – the staffing levels are likely to dwindle even further, leading to questions on the quality of service residents might receive.
Through attrition, manpower over the last decade has fallen to the current 39 sworn officers and 4 civilians. It’s a stark contrast to manpower in recent decades – in 1990, Ridgewood fielded 48 police officers and 8 civilians; staffing hovered around 47 officers with a handful of civilians until the early-to-mid 2000s before it precipitously began slipping as call volumes rose.
Officers told Patch the impact of depleted manpower is already emerging, with detective case-loads piling up and overtime on the rise. The department handles about 30,000 calls for service a year.
While two officers have recently moved up the ladder to sergeant and lieutenant, there are no immediate replacements available for two now-vacant patrol positions.
“It isn’t quite bringing us back to whole but hopefully the promotions will eliminate the gap with patrol supervision,” Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward told Patch in an interview.
“Unfortunately, as we move along, we’re talking roughly six months worth of police academy training and three months of field training,” he said of the two new hires, Anthony Dinice and Christopher Mormino. “So we won’t actually see them as individual solo officers on patrol until the beginning of 2014 or later.”
(Dinice was injured and will have to re-enter the police academy at a later date.)
Ward maintains a force of 46 or 47 officers would allow the department to “make a significant impact” on overtime while ramping up community policing initiatives he’s touted since being sworn in as chief three years ago. A minimum of 43 officers – recommended in an independent accreditation review of the department in 2008 – is a figure he could live with, he told Patch.
But if the village doesn’t hire at least four additional officers by early 2015 that goal is unlikely to be reached, the numbers suggest.
More departures expected
Multiple officers said between five and eight veteran cops are expected to retire before the current police contract expires in December of 2015, which would allow them to preserve benefits afforded to them in the current contract.
“If we drop even lower, we’ll basically become a department that only responds to calls,” one officer told Patch. “Some things won’t be investigated, some things will just take a long time to get to – there won’t be enough people to go around.”
Another officer said the detective’s squad would be a shell of its current self and the traffic enforcement initiatives would likely be crunched in between calls, telling Patch that the department is “already at a tipping point.”
“The level of service won’t be up to what people expect in Ridgewood, that’s for sure,” the officer said.
Though he said the Ridgewood Police Department would continue to provide patrol and emergency response service at a high level, Ward didn’t dispute the officer’s comments either.
“If we experience a seven-to-eight man exodus at one time without addressing that, you’re going to have a 20 percent reduction in an already understaffed department,” the chief remarked. “There’s no way around it – it’s going to affect us significantly.”
By law, the department is mandated to have four officers patrolling the 5.7 miles of Ridgewood, with at least one supervisor on duty. With vacations, sick day call-outs, injuries, and mandated furlough time (two days a year), officers need to be called in to cover shifts.
The department got an early glimpse at a force numbering in the low 30s when a stomach bug flew through the department in April. Eight police officers took days off and overtime soared as a result, police said.
Manpower declining, departmental costs rising
Yet despite reduced staff, the department’s budget remains a growing challenge. Renegotiated in late 2010, officers are receiving annual raises of around 4 percent per year. From 2010-2014, police receive an aggregate 4.24 increase in salary. The number will drop to a 2.5 percent increase in 2015, the final year of the contract.
In fact, most officers make north of $100,000, with benefit packages tacking on tens of thousands more.
Starting salaries for new officers have been lowered to $32,000 (from about $42,000), a move officials at the time said would save Ridgewood millions over the long haul. The immediate savings were predicated upon the notion the village would realize “breakage” savings from the cost of older officers being replaced by cheaper rookies in the current contract.
Here’s the rub – since being renegotiated, few officers have left the department, and even fewer have been hired while the top salary ranges remain high.
The village hasn’t had new officers patrol the streets since John Ward Jr. and Steven Cummings were sworn in August of 2011.
Village Manager Ken Gabbert in late 2010 said the goal was to hire three-to-four officers. That never materialized, and some officers have told Patch it remains a sore point.
Officers now pay more into health care and step increases have widened, in addition to officers now being required to provide two furlough days. But the total givebacks don’t close the overall cost gap – the department’s salary and wages are indisputably growing.
With built-in increases from the police contract, the department’s $6.13 million in appropriations grew $230,000 from 2012. It grew $356,000 the year prior. Comp time will further cost the town a budgeted $1.48 million in 2013.
Ward maintains he and Cpt. Jacqueline Luthcke have worked fervently to address staffing issues, employing creative means to ensure coverage in town. Both the captain and the chief also pitch in on patrol duties.
The traffic bureau was reconstituted in 2011 to focus on pedestrian and traffic issues in the densely-packed village. But when a patrol officer can’t make it, often one of the traffic division officers cover the shift. Some officers float between patrol, traffic and even the detective’s squad.
The flexibility has helped keep overtime costs down, Ward contends. The department was able to save nearly $200,000 on overtime costs through the arrangements in 2012, according to the chief.
The detective’s squad supervisor, Lt. Forest Lyons, also covers patrol shifts as a supervisor.
“I’d love to get a full-time supervisor at the bureau and in traffic,” Ward said. “Whether or not that’s going to be reality remains to be seen based on economics and the council.”
Mayor says public safety won’t be compromised
While the council is focused on reducing the tax burden on residents, it won’t come from reductions in public safety, Mayor Paul Aronsohn contends.
“This is an issue the council will be engaged in,” he said. “We recognize that public safety is our number one priority and getting that right is our number one goal. That means having the right staffing level and dedicating enough resources toward that.”
Aronsohn said additional officers could improve response time and cut overtime.
“My personal view is we probably need more folks,” he said.
Ward expressed confidence the administration, council and the police department can devise a way to beef up staffing. With nine months of academy time built in, it will likely need to hire multiple officers – by spring of 2015 at the latest.
“There are concerns but I’m hopeful the council, management and myself can all work together to find a resolution in a proactive way,” Ward said.