Tisbury Police Ask Voters for Staff Help
Union Wants Two Additional Officers;Issue Will Appear as April Article on Town Meeting Warrant
By JOSHUA SABATINI
An unprecedented move by the Tisbury police union will put the debate over staffing of the town police force before the voters at town meeting time in April.
The police department's union steward, Michael Marchand, said he asked selectman Tristan Israel at their last labor management meeting Jan. 3 to place an article on the annual town meeting warrant, but Mr. Israel declined to do so.
Officer Marchand then sought the 10 signatures necessary to get an article on the warrant and submitted the document to the board of selectmen.
The article asks the town to spend an estimated $78,000 to hire two additional full-time police officers, increasing the department's full-time roster from 11 to 13.
The selectmen have referred the article to town counsel for review to determine whether the article is binding for the selectmen if voters approve it in April.
In September, the selectmen refused Tisbury police chief John McCarthy's request for 12 full-time officers and even suggested that perhaps a roster of 10 was sufficient. In October the selectmen voted to allow 11 officers, a number which satisfied neither the police chief nor the union.
In a conversation with the Gazette this week, Mr. Marchand said the manpower debate dates back to 1999 when a consultant's recommendations, known since as the Wasserman report, came out and officer T.M. Silvia reached a settlement and left the department.
"At that point we had heard that the selectmen had not planned on replacing [Mr. Silvia]," said Mr. Marchand. "We felt as a unit that we were being punished for what was happening and they were downsizing the police department. It was our belief at that time that that wasn't the way to go."
In 1999, the selectmen voted to cut the police department from a roster of 12 to 11. "We felt that they probably weren't acting in the best interest of the taxpayers of Tisbury in downsizing the department. Maybe their vision was a little clouded by what was produced by the Wasserman report," said Mr. Marchand.
In 1976 the Tisbury police department was operating as a 12-man department with eight full-time patrolmen. The police department is now operating with a staff of 10, six of them full-time patrolmen, and is in the process of hiring a seventh additional officer.
"You need these people to get the job done. We do not feel the [downsizing] is in the best interest of the taxpayers. We felt that the selectmen are not making the right decision here and a decision of this magnitude should probably go before the taxpayers of Tisbury. Let them choose if they want their services to be reduced or if they want to continue to grow like every other department on Martha's Vineyard," said Mr. Marchand.
"It all comes down to safety. We are worried about the safety of the officers," said Mr. Marchand. "We do not have manpower right now to handle day-to-day operations of the police department."
Chief McCarthy said this week, "I have not understood and do not understand the reducing of our department to 11, other than to save money." Mr. McCarthy was not involved in the union's action. He did say, "It is a sorry state of affairs that it came to filing an article."
While the department is in the process of hiring an officer to reach the 11-man status, the selectmen have allowed Mr. McCarthy to use special officers to fill in for the eleventh man. Ideally, special officers are used to fill in for officers who are on vacation, holiday time, sick leave and training.
Full-time officers are academy trained and certified as EMTs. So-called specials are less experienced, paid about half as much, have no union benefits, no health coverage and are not EMTs. "We are relying solely on our special officers to complement our shifts just to get the bare bones done of what needs to be done in a police department," said Mr. Marchand.
The selectmen have instructed Chief McCarthy to run his department with 11 men and not to use specials to fill in.
Mr. Marchand said, "We are using 13 now. We have been supplementing the officers we don't have. The chief is filling those shifts with special officers. On a routine week, we have special officers working 100 hours, sometimes more and sometimes less. This has been fairly consistent for a long time now. We are looking to have two officers available for call response at all times."
Mr. Marchand said that when the officers go through academy training, they are taught that for most calls they should have two officers responding. That is not happening all the time in Tisbury, according to Mr. Marchand.
"I think the town would probably want better, want more than that, and they deserve more," said Mr. Marchand.
Mr. Israel has taken the position that he wants Mr. McCarthy to run an 11-man department and then decide whether the 11-man is effective at a later date.
The Tisbury department is smaller by about four officers than the police rosters in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. Tisbury is a dry town, which changes the demands on a police force considerably. But Mr. Marchand maintained, "We have basically the same call volume that those towns have." He also pointed out that the people who patronize the bars in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs don't all live in those towns.
Mr. Marchand would like nothing more than to bring the manpower issue to rest. "We are looking to move forward with the police department," said Mr. Marchand. "There have been problems in the past. We are looking to move forward, to bring the Tisbury police department to the next generation. That is what we want to do and at the same time provide the security for the officers who are there so we have ample coverage to respond to these calls."
A seven-member police advisory committee (PAC) was created in June to give residents a voice in shaping the police services they want to see in town. The PAC is conducting a survey of town residents to learn what programs they would like the police running.
Mr. Marchand was clear on community programs. "To operate smoothly, to get the job done, we need 13, and that doesn't bring in the community relations work. Any community relations work that needs to be done would be above and beyond that number."
Mr. Marchand said Island police departments are becoming more involved in the community. For instance, the Edgartown police have an officer at the elementary school and the high school. Tisbury has neither.
The union supports Mr. McCarthy's stand on the issue. "What the chief is doing is what he needs to do," said Mr. Marchand. "He knows what kind of coverage is needed, the minimum coverage that's needed."
Last week, the selectmen approved the police budget presented by Chief McCarthy while also stating the discussion on the use of specials is not over. The police chief told the Gazette that if the town approves the two additional officers some of the costs allotted for specials in his budget could offset part of the estimated $78,000.