(Oct. 16, 2020) Ocean City officials will pay less than expected this fiscal year to hire 10 full-time officers, after agreeing to split the hirings between January and July and delaying the purchase of additional patrol vehicles.
A definitive answer as to how these officers will be paid for remains in question, although ideas have been pitched.
The major reason behind the additional officers requested had been the police department’s seasonal officer program, which has suffered from a decline in interest.
Increasing responsibilities, tied specifically to growing special events, also had been part of the police’s original pitch to the council.
“Where we are now is about a 70-75 percent decrease [in applicants],” Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said.
According to police data, in 2013 the police department vetted 574 applicants and hired 73 — in 2020, 158 applied and 33 were hired, Buzzuro said.
Perhaps the greatest factor in dwindling recruitment numbers is growing nationwide anti-police sentiment derived from accusations of police brutality.
Capt. Mike Colbert said this sentiment was apparent in higher education, as well, as criminal justice programs have seen diminishing interest, according to professors with whom local police work closely.
National outcry over police brutality has resulted in calls for higher hiring and training standards, which comes with a higher price tag, increased liability and requires longer testing and training periods.
This year’s recruitment could prove even more challenging, as covid-19 could prevent police from making its standard rounds of college and university visits. Last year, police visited 78 institutions.
Covid-19 also presents other problems, such as elimination of testing and training sites, restricted space to adhere to social distancing and travel restrictions.
To combat this, police had requested 10 full-time officers, with the plan to eventually reach 33 additional officers within a three- to five-year period.
One full-time officer is equal to three seasonal officers, Buzzuro said.
“That’s a hypothesis,” Buzzuro said about the projected officer demand. “That’s a pretty good educated guess based on the data and our experience.. We may not need to meet that number as we progress. I don’t think it’s going to go above that number.”
Buzzuro clarified that the ratio only accounted for experience, and did not take into consideration visibility that comes with a robust seasonal program and other pros and cons.
“There are some disadvantages to less officers,” Buzzuro said. “... You’re going to lose a degree of depth and visibility.”
Councilman John Gehrig said the conversation had been about not only adding full-time officers, but also revamping the seasonal and public safety aide programs.
With that in mind, he asked Buzzuro if his plan was to eliminate 30 or so of those seasonal positions to supplement the full-time officers.
Buzzuro said police did not want to turn away seasonal officers or safety aides, but simply did not believe the department could recruit a sufficient number to match that of previous years.
“We have a number of 146 right now, we just don’t conceivably believe that we’re going to get anywhere near that,” Buzzuro said of next year and years to follow.
Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said it would not necessarily be a loss of 30 seasonal officers, but rather it would be a reallocation of unfilled positions.
“They budget for 80 and we’ve been hiring in the 50 range,” Knapp said. “All we’re going to do is take those 30 positions out of the budget. [We’re] not going below that 50 that we’ve been hiring, but actually taking that 30 that we haven’t been [hiring].”
Eliminating those 30 positions would result in about $268,000.
Gehrig asked if the police could use other tools such as cameras, Boardwalk patrol vehicles and drones to increase the police’s eye over the resort.
“It starts and ends with additional personnel to get the job done,” Buzzuro said.
While such tools increase the police’s watch over the resort, dealing with troublemakers require actual personnel.
Buzzuro then mentioned the increase in special events, from 50 in 2010 to more than 100 now, as another issue.
Councilman Mark Paddack said he understood the police department’s growing pains, and said the city should redo the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) study done 15 years ago that helped quantify the need for additional personnel.
Gehrig inquired about overtime, and Knapp said the city currently spends $800,000 in overtime for the police patrol division. June accounts for roughly $300,000, while September, October and May accounted for about $240,000.
“I do not believe overtime hours will go down if you add 10 police officers,” Knapp said.
Gehrig then asked whether hiring the 10 officers could be split between fiscal years — five beginning in January and the next half in July.
This proved doable and Buzzuro and Colbert expressed confidence in the ability to get 10 officers, give or take, in the academy by January.
The police would be willing to hold off on purchasing extra patrol cars, as well.
This would mean the initial cost would drop.
The cost per officer is $113,760, which includes base salary, health and benefits and a one-time cost to equip the officers.
With only five added in January, this would bring the initial cost down to $568,800, compared to the $1.3 million originally projected.
In terms of fiscal year 2021, this would mean $284,400 from January to the end of June.
As for how all of this would be paid, while nothing was set in stone, Councilman Tony DeLuca suggested ideas such as raising room tax by either .5 or 1 percent, which would generate $1.6 million and $3.2 million, respectively; reduce overtime pay; divert room tax revenue toward public safety; investigate grant opportunities; and selling surplus properties.