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Ashland police staffing issues halt Talent patrol service

File photo | Staffing shortages have forced the Ashland Police Department to pause an intergovernmental agreement with Talent to provide public safety coverage.

ASHLAND — Staffing shortages have forced the Ashland Police Department to pause an intergovernmental agreement with Talent to provide public safety coverage, according to Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

“The staffing situation at the police department remains critical,” he said during a City Council meeting Tuesday.

Compared to the 16 patrol officers typically divided across four shifts, APD is working with 11, with the likelihood of dropping to 10 soon, O’Meara said. The department still accomplishes 24/7 patrol coverage with overtime and “burning officers out,” he said.

“We have some good candidates to bring on in a lateral capacity,” O’Meara said. “We might be able to shore up the numbers, right now we’re going to limp along as we can.”

As a result, APD has pulled back from an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Talent to provide 12 hours per day of police coverage — approved unanimously by the City Council in May as a “short- to medium-range partnership solution” which, in part, responded to staffing shortages the Talent police department experienced in 2020.

Ashland police coverage in Talent will cease after Nov. 14, but Talent law enforcement will continue to have access to APD detectives, on-duty supervisors and training for a smaller fee than the original IGA sum of $375,000 per year, O’Meara said. The suspension of services — by mutual consent — does not violate any terms of the agreement, he said.

The cities of Ashland and Talent continue plans to co-fund a feasibility study to explore consolidating the two departments, O’Meara said.

Talent city leadership showed interest in identifying alternatives for law enforcement services in both communities through partnership, according to interim City Manager Gary Milliman. Further details are slated to come in front of the City Council at the Nov. 16 meeting.

“It is not a localized thing, it is everywhere in the country facing shortages of people that want to be police officers, and they’re seeing veteran police officers that are walking away,” O’Meara said. “We’ve got veteran officers that are leaving APD, and we’re lucky when we get those good quality lateral [hires].”

Amid a contentious nationwide conversation about “how to police ourselves,” APD is also inextricably linked to local fiscal issues, namely general fund vulnerability and recalibration of service levels, said Councilor Tonya Graham.

Fire and rescue, police and finance top the list for expenditures by department from the general fund, according to the adopted biennial budget. The APD budget totals nearly $8 million, 95% of which is dedicated to fixed contracts, personnel and central services. The remaining discretionary sum funds supplies.

With an authorized increase to 32 sworn officers prior to the pandemic, in September O’Meara said he intended to schedule one supervisor and three patrol officers on duty at all times, allowing the department to handle two critical incidents in progress at once without requiring assistance from another agency. The department returned to a 28-officer cap due to pandemic-induced financial constraints.

O’Meara said in the current staff environment, officers are “decreasingly in a position to do proactive policing” and actively build relationships.

“For a city our size, with our tourism, with our university that’s bigger than it was 25 years ago, that wants to engage in professional, progressive policing, I am still of the opinion that our police staffing should be at about 32 if not a little bit more,” O’Meara said Tuesday.

For now, the department struggles to fill the authorized 28 positions — short by about five staff members as of Tuesday. The conversation about allocating funding for additional staff is a few bienniums away, he said.