2012-06-29 / Front Page

City officials consider adding staff to police force

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins said he needs more sworn officers on his staff to adequately respond to the needs of South Portland residents. He pitched the idea to the city council at a workshop on Monday, June 25.

Googins told the council that the South Portland police department is fully equipped to respond to high-level emergencies. Overall crime in South Portland last year was down nearly nine percent. But if residents complain about a minor nuisance, it can take the police a while to respond.

As an example, Googins described a recent event in which he received a text from a resident to ask why the police hadn’t responded to his call about someone throwing firecrackers.

“He had called the police and we weren’t coming. And we didn’t come for quite a while. I want to say 45 to 60 minutes later. Now the reason was our officers were all tied up on matters that were a higher priority,” Googins said.

The issue first came to the council’s attention through a 2007 report filed by a committee formed under then-mayor Claude Morgan. The committee was formed because the city worried the police department faced “a crisis in attracting, hiring and retaining police officers,” according to the report. The committee recommended in the report that the police department hire three new officers by 2010, by which time only one officer has been added to the force.

“A good percentage of the time, we have only a four-car patrol. As a community of 25,000, four cars manning the streets is not at an acceptable level,” said South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey.

Further, Googins described the hiring process in the police department as “a constant moving target.” He said in the last six months, three South Portland police officers have retired and one resigned to take a new job with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Googins has filled the vacancies left by retirements in the police department to keep the staff number at 53. But he said the department would be fully staffed at 55 officers. Currently, nine officers are eligible to retire, and four more will be by the end of 2012.

The council did not seem to come to a consensus on the matter Monday night. Councilors Thomas Coward and Rosemarie De Angelis both voiced their support for Googins’ proposal. Coward said the complaints he receives most often concern nuisances such as speeding violations and excessive noise, and the increase in police department staff would address exactly that.

“The things that affect a greater number of people at a lower level are what we need more feet on the ground to deal with. If that means staffing up more, I’m amenable to having that discussion,” Coward said.

De Angelis agreed. She said South Portland is a relatively safe city, but added, “things are changing. Issues are becoming more and more serious. There is more domestic violence ... there is more crime.”

Because of that increase in crime, De Angelis said the council “should take some action and begin to look at how we increase numbers on the streets in the police force.”

But Councilor Tom Blake said he was “not there yet” in approval of the staff increase. Blake said the report filed in 2007 was “flawed” because it came at a time when the economy was in better shape, and it argued more for retaining and training talented officers, rather than expanding the size of the force.

“There’s really not anything in here much at all that talks about a statistical analysis that indicates that South Portland needs to have a larger force. And that’s what I need,” Blake said.

Blake noted his appreciation for the hard work put in by the police department. But he asked for more data for the council to review before he could “foresee spending $100,000 to $150,000 every single year of our taxpayers’ money, when I look at areas we’ve been cutting because money has been tight.”

The council did come to a consensus to move forward with a more minor staffing change in the police department. Googins said Detective Reed Barker, a veteran officer, currently works in an office compiling crime data for the city. While Googins said that job is important because accurate figures ensure that the city gets state and federal funding, he said a civilian could perform the job.

“Reed has been in that role for a number of years and I’m telling you it does not require a sworn officer to do that,” Googins said.

Gailey agreed.

“We have an officer who can be out on the road in an office all day long,” Gailey said.

The council came to an informal consensus to add a civilian administrative position in the police department to collect crime data for the city, which would free up Barker to work in the field.

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