Which kind of officers should be cut?

Published 9:30 am Friday, September 25, 2009

While negotiations continue between Albert Lea city officials and the Teamsters union — which represents officers in the Albert Lea Police Department — questions remain about how the department will handle expected cuts.

With such a large cut, the department faces cutting full-time positions. If this comes to pass, should the department cut sworn officers or community service officers?

While some credit the work these community service officers have done to clean up the appearance of the community, others say it’s important to keep on sworn officers who are trained to respond to crimes.

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The crunch comes after the department earlier this month found out it did not receive a federal or state grant to let its officers to continue working at the present level over the next two years. This comes on top of a more than $1 million cut to local government aid to the city in 2009 and 2010.

While many budget cuts have been proposed in other departments, thus far no full-time positions have had to be cut.

While she did not expand on the proposals, Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen said the city has presented an initial proposal to Teamsters, and the union responded. The city has since responded again.

Most recently, Simonsen said, the two entities have discussed not getting the grant and what possible options there are, including furloughs, early retirement and layoffs.

Teamsters representatives are going to meet with their membership and get back to the city with input.

Another meeting is scheduled for Oct. 5, she said.

Where should the cuts come from?

Albert Lea Police Chief Dwaine Winkels said there are 28 sworn officers within the department, which is down from 30 sworn officers three years ago. These officers comprise one chief, three lieutenants, three detectives, one school resource officer and 20 patrol officers.

Three of those patrol officers also handle corporal or school resource assignments.

There is also one full-time and one part-time community service officer. Called CSOs, they handle parking, animal control and refuse complaints. This is down from two full-time and two-part time CSOs last year, he said.

Lastly, there are eight full-time and two part-time dispatchers, of which the county pays part of their salaries.

Though Winkels did not want to publish the department’s shift information, he said the department runs standard shifts with standard start and stop times.

He said there is always 24-hour coverage; however, staffing is based on call volume. When there’s a peak in calls for service, there are more officers, and when there are fewer calls for service, there are fewer officers on duty.

While some people wish the department could staff for “the big one” — a potential horrible disaster — it’s hard to predict when that will be, he said. If something big happens, more officers could be called to work.

Each call is handled differently, with the number of officers responding based on what it takes to handle the case as efficiently and appropriately as possible.

“Depending on the situation, you never have enough,” Winkels said.

For example, in the case of a physical domestic situation, sometimes it will take three or four officers; if you have a bar fight, sometimes you need more as well.

Oftentimes, even loud party calls will turn up four or five officers, because those kinds of calls sometimes turn up other things too, he said.

He recognized that some people say there don’t need to be that many officers at a call, but as long as the outcome is the efficient delivery of service with the least amount of officers responding, that’s what is done, he said.

CSOs versus sworn officers

If it comes down to laying off positions within the department, Winkels said it will be a difficult decision to make; ultimately, it will be one left up to the Albert Lea City Council.

“No one wants to see officers cut,” he said. “I don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs.

“Any time you cut personnel, you will lose a level of service. Would public safety be jeopardized by cutting officers? Essential services would not be cut, but you do lose a level of service.”

Winkels said the Police Department makes up 30 percent of the city budget, a portion which is mainly spent on personnel.

If a sworn officer is cut, this would be done based on seniority. The officer who has been with the department the least amount of time would be the first to go.

While sworn officers are under the Teamsters union, CSOs are under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal union. Dispatchers are yet with a different union. Negotiations have only started with the Teamsters union.

Would the cut be to a sworn officer or to CSO?

Proponents of actual sworn officers are quick to say that CSOs should be cut.

A police officer who did not wish to be named in this story for fear of retribution said he is concerned about shortages in patrols, particularly in the early morning. He said quite often only overtime is being used to cover a three-hour weak spot. He said the department will hold an officer late and call one in early.

He said many officers are upset over the proposal to reduce sworn officers but not CSOs.

“By not cutting CSOs, it pretty much is handicapping us by two officers,” he said.

Simonsen said she thinks the CSOs have done an excellent job in their duties since they were created a few years ago. They deal with the issues that bring in the top number of calls to the department: animal control, parking and junk complaints.

“I personally feel the CSOs have made a significant impact on the appearance of our community,” she said. “They are fully utilized in their current hours.”

Officers have told her if the CSO positions were eliminated they would pick up their duties.

The officer speaking anonymously charged that Winkels told him he doesn’t believe sworn officers would do the work done by CSOs. The officer says that is false, that officers would do CSO work, but CSOs cannot do much of the work sworn officers do. He said it seems more practical to cut CSOs prior to cutting officers.

The officer said he is also worried about the quality of life in Albert Lea going down as a result of fewer officers. He remarked that, if cuts are made, citizens will notice officers rush or cut their responses to calls.

“I see the quality of the police response going down,” he said.

Winkels said while the level of service would be diminished, it is not the Police Department that controls the quality of life in Albert Lea.

“It’s the citizens of Albert Lea who are accredited with the quality of life in Albert Lea,” Winkels said. “We share the credit, and we help promote that.”

Another issue at hand is the Albert Lea Animal Shelter, which at one point was nearing a contract between the city and the Freeborn County Humane Society. If that had already been settled, it would help determine funding, Simonsen said.

Winkels pointed out that both salaries of the CSO positions do not equal one officer’s salary. Thus, if the CSOs were cut, an officer would still have to be cut.

What’s next?

Simonsen said the city is waiting to hear what the Teamsters union will come back with in their next meeting.

“If they can come up with another means to not lay off people, that’d be great,” she said.

“The overall climate and the economy, it makes it difficult for negotiations and to keep employee morale up, as I’m sure is the case for everyone.”

She said she thinks both sides are negotiating in good faith right now.

There is also always still the option of cutting from another city department.

“It’s just, which one?” she asked.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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