Seasonal cops becoming more difficult to recruit
(Oct. 2, 2020) The Ocean City Police Department will be able to hire 10 more full-time officers, although it remains to be seen how the city will cover the expected $1 million or more the additional personnel will cost.
On Tuesday, Police Chief Ross Buzzuro and Capt. Mike Colbert explained to the mayor and City Council the challenges the department has faced in hiring seasonal employees.
They cited a cocktail of factors, such as low pay, increased training requirements, increased liability and negative associations with the line of work.
Buzzuro mentioned Minneapolis, Minnesota, where former officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, was caught on tape kneeling on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd who died as a result.
This sparked national protests, as has similar incidents over the last decade, which has hurt interest in police work nationwide.
“There’s an incredible movement over the last few years, and it has only accelerated in the last 18 months, to look at an increase in standards and mandated training for police,” Colbert said. “The police reform movement has [put] a huge emphasis on accountability, training, community interactions, use of force by police officers and an overall sense of professionalism that is being demanded by the community.”
Failure to adhere to those standards has resulted in huge liability claims, Colbert said.
Recently, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, agreed to pay $12 million to the family of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed by police.
Locally, Colbert said there has been an increased demand in police services both in season and out of season.
“The amount of special events and demand on police services have increased over the last 10 years, approximately by 40 to 50 percent,” Colbert said.
Additionally, Ocean City police respond to every call made to the department, which is not the case for other law enforcement agencies across the state and nation.
“To put things in perspective, during my tenure, which started in 2013, we’ve had basically the same number of police officers,” Buzzuro said, which was the case seven years before his tenure as well.
Crime has not been a driving force, Buzzuro said, as the resort has seen declines in crime for the last several years, although sporadic pop-up rallies and early June activity are outliers.
With this in mind, Colbert said the department’s goal is to increase its number form 107 officers to 140 over the next few years.
To begin, the department was requesting to add 10 officers, which was not budgeted earlier this year.
This would cost the city roughly $1 million yearly, plus a one-time cost of $30,276 for guns, holsters, training, psychological evaluations, uniforms and other items.
Yearly costs could increase, as the police contract places officers on a “step” table, meaning an officer’s base level pay of $44,944 could increase every year.
Additionally, if a lateral officer, which is an officer who is already trained, is hired that would likely increase the yearly salary cost.
An expanded police force might necessitate additional patrol vehicles, Colbert said, which would cost $181,146 to purchase, upfit and equip and tack on additional annual costs associated with fuel and maintenance.
City officials unanimously supported the request, although some expressed concerns about the cost.
“I really believe last time we talked we agreed to attack the hiring of seasonal public safety aides [PSA’s] and reserves,” DeLuca said.
He said his understanding had been city officials and police would look at increasing the salary, changing the name of the position and providing housing.
“As I’ve said before it’s a lot of the small things that set the pace on the Boardwalk and it really is [more related to seasonal officers and PSA’s] when you think about cigarettes, dogs, litter and masks,” DeLuca said.
Colbert clarified that he did not mean to say the public safety aides would be reduced and added that those aides did not have the ability to make arrests or use force.
Councilman John Gehrig said he agreed with the move, but city officials needed to be realistic with the expense and begin looking at funding sources.
“Keeping the public safe is primary,” Gehrig said. However, “I would like to see what this is going to cost and determine how we’re going to pay for it.”
He said there were three ways to pay for the new officers: cut existing positions, raise taxes or, his preferred choice, making more money through collaboration with the county.
“We have to be real — this is a major expense and it’s one thing to say it’ll cost us more if we don’t do it, I agree with that, but that isn’t real dollars,” Gehrig said. “… The public needs to understand that given our current economic situation … if we do, this is more than likely some level of tax increase.”
According to City Manager Doug Miller, that would be a penny and a half on the current property tax rate.
A tax rate increase would be a last resort. Nevertheless, city officials seem firm in their opinion that boosting its law enforcement was the cheaper option in the long run.
“We can’t afford not to address it,” Mayor Rick Meehan said pointing to increasing bad publicity. “We’re starting to lose visitors because we’re not enforcing laws — we just can’t afford not to do this.”