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Police rethink staffing

When a bank robber handed a US Bank teller a note demanding cash and claiming to have a gun concealed in his pocket at 2:41 p.m. Thursday, Ashland police officer Scott Schuster had just gotten off duty.

Schuster, a patrol officer, was scheduled to start at 6 a.m. Some days he gets called in early and begins his shift at — a.m. or 4 a.m.

Patrol officer Steve MacLennan responded to the robbery, although his 8-hour shift had ended at 2 p.m. An officer had called in sick, requiring MacLennan to hold over until 6 p.m. That morning, MacLennan had been designated the officer-in-charge because a shift-supervising sergeant was not available.

Jason Billings, another patrol officer, had clocked in at 2 p.m. and was on-scene at the bank. Billings was scheduled for a 10-hour shift on Thursday. For two of those hours &

from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. &

he would be the only patrol officer on duty.

The incident highlights a central concern of the Ashland Police Association over staffing levels for APD patrol officers &

both understaffing and filling vacancies &

as expressed in its July 10 letter calling for the removal of Chief Mike Bianca.

&

Minimum staffing of patrol officers is ran on most shifts, often by the city paying overtime to hold over officers or to call them in early for the next shift,&

the letter stated.

Bianca, who acknowledges the concern, said the police association helped contribute to the problem when the group asked to alter the lineup, creating more scheduling headaches.

In the past, all officers were required to work five 8-hour days. A year ago that condition was changed to allow some officers to schedule four 10-hour days per week. Bianca noted the 24 hours in a day are not divisible by 10, a complication to staffing the patrol shifts.

&

Some of it&

s because there&

s not people available to do the shift,&

Bianca said. &

Some of it&

s because we tried to wrestle with these eight- and 10-hour shifts.&

The police association is a bargaining unit of 24 sworn officers at the APD.

The department will return to officers working five 8-hour shifts per week on Sept. 23 to alleviate some scheduling difficulties, APD Sgt. Teresa Selby said.

&

We don&

t have enough personnel to work 10s.&

Selby said, adding even if the all vacancies in the department were filled, scheduling would continue to be a challenge.

Bianca did not ask the city to dedicate additional funds for a patrol officer during the 2005-06 budget because crime rates had fallen. He has since decided to take another look at the staffing levels.

&

I&

m listening to the people who work here saying that we&

re sorely understaffed.&

Bianca said.

Experts agree

The police association&

s complaint is not new. Many officers say they see few efforts by the management to better their situation.

&

I&

ve been here 2 1/2 years and I&

ve been doing this 2 1/2 years,&

Billings said. &

The terrible thing is, when I plan to go home and don&

t get to. That&

s frustrating &

not knowing when you&

re going to work,&

A 2000 patrol study commissioned by the city reported the two additional patrol officers need to be hired to meet the department&

s operational goals for patrol. At the time of the study, conducted by Conrona Solutions of Colorado, APD employed 14 patrol officers. The department has hired four officers since 2000 &

a sergeant, a community service officer, a traffic cop and a patrol officer &

and operates with 15 patrol positions and two traffic officers, which do not take cases. One of those officers is on special assignment to the Medford Drug Enforcement Agency office, two are recent hires involved in training programs and another two have conditional job offers on the table hinged on background checks.

Not including officers in training, the APD currently runs two officers below the staffing levels Corona Solutions deemed inadequate for meeting the department&

s goals for response time &

three minutes for the highest priority calls, 15 minutes for second-tier calls and 45 minutes for third priority needs.

Bianca &

didn&

t think&

the department needed more officers, but is now looking for the grounds for the association&

s complaints, such as too many calls being assigned to each officer or rising crime rates.

&

Now I&

m going to study that and find where the justification is.&

Bianca said. &

I believe we need more detectives and that was where, before this staffing issue was raised recently, we need to build our force.&

Minimum staffing for the department equates to one supervisor and one patrol officer working the day shift, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. During the swing (2 p.m. to midnight) and graveyard (8 p.m. to 6 a.m.) a supervisor is supposed to work with two patrol officers. This is not always the case at APD.

&

We&

ve always felt like we could use more officers.&

Selby said. &

It&

s been a long time since we were fully staffed.&

tracking the overtime the department is paying out, the department is staffing one extra person through time-and-a-half compensation, according to Selby, though she believes the department could provide the foot and bike patrols the community has asked for if it were to hire six additional patrol officers.

Although no one minds the overtime compensation, the number of extra hours some officers put in come in the form of compensation hours. The comp time could be used as extra vacation hours, but there the tight scheduling affords little opportunity for time off. As a result, those comp hours translate into paid, but unused vacation hours.

With overtime pay last year, one patrol officer grossed more than $72,000, according to Selby.

&

That&

s about $22,000 more than me,&

she said. Selby is not eligible for overtime pay.

Regular pay for patrol officers falls between $35,484 and $45,084 annually.

Filling the void

On most days, Ashland residents may not notice that only one or two officers are available to respond to calls for service. People see police vehicles on the streets and may believe the city is overrun with officers.

However, a significant portion of the APD officers out and about during the day do not respond to 911 calls. These other officers dedicate their time to special assignments, managing the police staff or backing up patrol officers in serious situations.

So during the bank robbery, the Ashland police department appeared to be out in force. That force included two detectives, to sergeants, the downtown officer and the community service officer supporting the two patrol officers on duty. Eventually, two Oregon State Police troopers, an FBI agent and a lieutenant, detective, two patrol officers and a police dog from the Medford Police Department were on scene to help with the investigation.

During that time, all other 911 calls waited.

On a regular basis, people calling for service for incidents rated low in priority wait upwards of an hour for an officer to respond, according to APD officials.

&

We&

ve had party calls wait two to three hours.&

Selby said, explaining that responding to nuisance calls, such as a noise violation, can sometimes prevent fights or drunk driving.

&

It doesn&

t make sense,&

MacLennan said. &

The city&

s not getting the service they deserve.&

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x 3019 or jsquires@dailytidings.com.