Selectmen of Tisbury Approve Police Department Expansion

By JONATHAN BURKE

After reviewing a new report by an independent consultant, the Tisbury selectmen agreed Tuesday night to increase the police force to 13 full-time officers.

In a 2-1 vote, the selectmen agreed to a $982,000 police department budget for the year ahead that includes funding for two new full-time officers. With an officer leaving the force at the end of this month, that will bring to three the number of officers that Ted Saulnier, police chief, needs to hire.

"I've reached out to the Island NAACP and I'm seeking help from them in getting some candidates to apply. I've advertised in the Boston Globe and the Globe has put the ad on the Internet," said Chief Saulnier. Mr. Saulnier said he will advertise in the Island papers as well.

The staffing increase laid out in the next fiscal year's budget is the product of both controversy and planning.

The manpower debate dates back to 1999, when the town settled a discrimination case with officer T.M. Silvia and Mr. Silvia left the department. The selectmen voted then not to replace Mr. Silvia, a move that reduced the force to 11 officers.

The reduction in the department's size has been challenged ever since.

Michael Marchand, the department's union steward, marshaled support to place an article on the 2002 Tisbury town warrant to increase the police roster to 13. But the article was removed at the same time that Mr. Saulnier, then a lieutenant, was asked to replace John McCarthy as police chief. It appeared that the union saw a change in the political climate and preferred to pursue its staffing goals from within.

Chief Saulnier published a manpower assessment last spring and the selectmen later agreed to have Robert Wasserman, a consultant, prepare a professional analysis of the department's staffing needs. Mr. Wasserman's report was made public last week.

On staffing, Mr. Wasserman concluded, "Certainly it is important that the department be brought up to a strength of twelve (12) police officers as soon as possible. Movement to a thirteenth (13) officer could occur in a year."

Following a lengthy discussion on Tuesday, the selectmen agreed to support Chief Saulnier's plan to add two officers immediately, on condition that the department's overtime and part-time/seasonal line items be reduced.

Tristan Israel, selectman, questioned the need to jump to 13 officers right away.

"We add a 12th guy to the department at this point," he said at the outset. Mr. Israel said the town then should wait and see what the economic climate would be over the next year before hiring a 13th officer.

Mr. Israel's reluctance to support a 13th officer led to a series of exchanges throughout the meeting with the chief.

"It says there should be 13," Chief Saulnier pointed out at the beginning of his presentation in response to Mr. Israel's comments.

Chief Saulnier argued that a 13th officer was needed to create a community policing environment and to ensure that two officers are on hand to respond to calls for help.

For example, he said, two officers should be on hand to respond to domestic disturbance calls. If he can only spare one officer, which is often the case with a full-time staff of only 11, then the officer will need to request mutual aid from another Island town if he needs help. It will take up to 15 minutes to get another officer on the scene, he said. Off-Island, the chief said, a call for assistance will result in 15 officers in three minutes.

"That's not the style this community wants," said Mr. Israel.

Said the chief to Mr. Israel, "You don't know what we do because you've never been to my office and ask what we do."

"No, I don't know all the nuances of law enforcement, but I also didn't just fall off the turnip truck," Mr. Israel said in defense of his position.

In the end, the evidence seemed to support the chief's call for two more full-time officers.

"There is a need for a minimum of two police officers on duty for all shifts, regardless of the season, day of week or time of day," concluded the Wasserman report. "Given the large percentage of calls that reflect conflict or disorder - situations always requiring that two officers respond - that needs to be the minimum staffing. Failing to provide that level of staffing can open the department to suit should a domestic situation get out of control."

By comparison with neighboring towns, the Tisbury police department is understaffed. Edgartown, which responded to 4,000 calls last year, according to Chief Saulnier, has 14 full-time officers. The Oak Bluffs force numbers 14, and responded to 6,000 calls last year. Tisbury, on the other hand, responded to 4,500 calls last year with 11 full-time officers.

"I know through my training and experience what we need. My predecessor, his opinion was the same. Mr. Wasserman's opinion is the same," said Chief Saulnier.

Chief Saulnier also has support from the police advisory committee, a citizen group. Jeff Kristal, chairman, said, "We want to see the police department have more community involvement. Rather than being reactionary, we want them to be proactive. Such as a police officer in the school system. Such as programs to assist the elderly. It needs to become a more involved department."

To implement that kind of plan, the department needs more officers.

"Some of the outreach that you want to do is really problematic. If you get into the outreach and then get a police call, you have to abandon your outreach," Chief Saulnier said in a conversation with the Gazette.

With the additional officers, Chief Saulnier said, he will be able to reach out to the community, particularly the school and the elderly. He said he would like to implement an outreach program to warn elderly people about phone scams.

Another hole that Chief Saulnier said he would like to plug is the lack of a full-time investigator in the department.

"It appears by everything that I can see that I'm going to need an investigator. This person is also going to handle the court cases in court every day. So they'll be able to see the cases through to the end," he said.

The selectmen, however, did not give the chief everything that he wanted. If the chief was going to get two new full-time officers, he should be required to give up a little bit from his overtime and part-time/seasonal budget, the selectmen reasoned.

The chief did his best to allay their concerns.

"I'm not going to assign people to places where they're not needed. So I'll be returning the money back to the town if need be."

"I'd rather see you back here and have you say that you've experienced manpower issues - make it a little bit painful for you," said Ray LaPorte, chairman of the board.

Selectman Tom Pachico noted that the chief's budget added two new officers at a cost of $110,000 but reduced overtime by only $12,000 and funds for part-time and seasonal officers by $15,000. The chief could not have it both ways, he said.

Ultimately the selectmen voted to trim the department's overtime budget by $7,000 and its part-time/seasonal budget by $10,000.

The final word lies with the citizens of Tisbury, who will vote the police department budget up or down at town meeting in April.

If he does ultimately get the green light from the town, Chief Saulnier said he will make every effort to hire a police officer from a minority ethnic group. The town is still feeling the effects of its lawsuit with T.M. Silvia, an officer who said he was treated unfairly within the department. Chief Saulnier said he is working with the NAACP. The NAACP will help advertise the openings, he said.

In his report, Mr. Wasserman said, "Minority hiring is particularly important. The racial tensions surrounding past events in the department's history cannot be forgotten. Tisbury is a multi-cultural community and its police department must reflect the diversity of that community - which is one of the greatest strengths of the town. But with a government structure with few minorities in key positions, it becomes even more important that the police department lead the way in reflecting this diversity."