Ocean View loses third officer, 24/7 coverage

This week, another officer from the Ocean View Police Department resigned, bringing the tally of officers to leave the department in recent weeks to three.

“It’s very common in these small police agencies, not just for Ocean View,” said Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin of attrition rates in public safety departments. “Bethany had two openings because they lost two officers. One went to the state police and one went to an agency in Florida. South Bethany had an opening because they lost an officer to the capital police,” he continued. “Fenwick Island has had guys come and go. They’ve just recently hired two guys from Selbyville, so now Selbyville has two openings. I know Millsboro has lost three or four in the last year. It’s a constant struggle.”

Patrolman A.J. McKechnie gave his two weeks notice to the OVPD on Feb. 28, following the resignation of officers Justin Norman and Mark Burton. McLaughlin said that all three officers cited salary and healthcare benefits as the genesis of their departure.

“It was very amicable,” said McLaughlin of the officers’ resignations. “[They] indicated that the sole reason they left was salary and benefits — the town’s compensation package. They took jobs in communities that offer better compensation packages.”

The town’s current healthcare coverage is through Coventry Healthcare, which McLaughlin stated offered less coverage than what other departments’ healthcare providers offer.

“According to the officers that are leaving, both Bethany and South Bethany have state Blue Cross and Blue Shield healthcare, and those plans offer more than the current plan that Ocean View has. They have it and we don’t, so it’s hard for us to compete with it.”

McLaughlin said he understands his officers’ concerns, and he noted that it is especially difficult to support a family living in a resort area.

“The officers struggle to survive, like anyone, and if there’s another community willing to offer more in the way of salary and benefits, then it’s easy to understand why they’d want to leave. It’s just the nature of the beast.

“It’s very expensive to live in this area, especially for young people who are getting started in life,” he added. “Homes in the Bethany Beach and Ocean View area aren’t cheap. We had an officer just a few years ago and, in his resignation letter, he stated that he loved Ocean View and loved to work here, but he and his family had dreams to own a home, etc., and they couldn’t realize those on an Ocean View patrolman’s salary. It’s difficult.”

McLaughlin said that the Town has had an ongoing application pool for those interested in serving as officers, which will he hopes will help speed up the process of finding replacements for the three open positions.

“We’ve had an ongoing application process that was initiated a couple months ago, and we’re very fortunate that it was initiated. At the time we weren’t looking to do anything other than establish a pool of applicants to have on hand,” he noted. “Low and behold, we find ourselves with a critical staffing issue. We’re moving forward with some of the application process, and we hope to have some replacements in the next police academy.”

McLaughlin said that the chances of finding already-Delaware-certified police officers to fill the three vacancies would be nearly impossible, especially given the salaries offered in his department.

“Realistically, we aren’t going to get a certified officer from Bethany taking a $10,000 pay cut to come to Ocean View. It’s difficult to find good, quality, trained police officers — especially when you’re not the highest-paying police department.”

Bethany Beach, in fact, is proposing to increase its property taxes by 3 percent this year – a half-cent per $100 of assessed property value – primarily to deal with increased personnel costs as part of an effort to retain and recruit trained police officers and lifeguards. Town officials said they’d realized they were no longer among the top-paying departments in the area.

The next Delaware State Police Academy training session is scheduled to begin in May, and training will run for six months. McLaughlin noted that the town calculated the total cost of sending a trainee through the academy, including the equipment needed and testing, as about $60,000 to $70,000.

McLaughlin said that he hopes to have officers attend the academy but, upon graduating, they will not be able to immediately serve as an officer for the OVPD.

“There’s a 10- to 12-week field-training process they have to go through with another officer,” he explained, adding that the trainee will be evaluated daily before eventually being approved for duty.

McLaughlin said that, if the town sends recruits to the academy, it will be close to this time next year when the certified officers will be able to serve as full-duty officers in his department.

The OVPD – which offers 24/7 police coverage to the town with 7.5 officers – may not be able to provide the heavy coverage that they had been providing, now that their staff has been temporarily reduced in size.

“When you’re talking about 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year… you start subtracting vacation days, sick leave… We have one officer that’s getting ready to have a baby… It’s going to be very difficult to provide 24/7 police coverage.”

In a “status report” to council members, and police officers, McLaughlin stated that the remaining officers will cover as many hours as possible, but the department will “no longer provide around-the-clock coverage,” which will “result in a reduction of police service to our community.”

“I think it’s unfortunate, because I believe the town strongly supports a 24/7 police force, and it’s expensive,” said Mayor Gordon Wood.

McLaughlin stated that he and Capt. Heath Hall would be covering some police shifts, and generally only one officer will be on duty at any given time. He added that Cpl. Sidney Ballentine and Patrolman Zach Spudis would now be authorized to take their police cars home, while plans to purchase newer replacement cars would be put on hold.

The take-home car policy previously in place at the OVPD was rescinded among police budget discussions about four years ago. Prior to that, officers were permitted to drive their cars to and from work – a perk that police have said helps them recruit and retrain officers.

Supporting council members said they believed the change would help save gas and reduce wear-and-tear on the police cars, while opponents questioned the potential impact on recruiting and retention, as well as officer preparedness in the event of an emergency. One sergeant was permitted at that time to retain the privilege, owing to the possibility that he might have to respond during off-duty hours.

Additionally, McLaughlin said, part-time officer Carter Russell will be used as much as possible during the personnel shortage and overtime will be used as needed.

“We could be stuck with four people trying to run a 24-hour police department, and that’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do,” McLaughlin told the Coastal Point earlier this week. “We temporarily may not be able to guarantee 24-hour policing until such time as we can acquire additional officers and get them through the necessary training and get them on the road.”

At the town council meeting earlier this month, Wood requested that council review the salary and healthcare coverage for the police department, a request that was tabled by the rest of the council.

“I have put forth this resolution to try and speed up the process and indicate to our police department that the council is doing something now,” Wood said. “The objective is competitiveness with other towns, as far as other departments are concerned.”

“I believed that what I proposed was the right thing to do,” he told the Coastal Point. “And I was disappointed that the rest of the council didn’t go along with it. I think that there will be a significant increase in salaries, and I don’t understand why the council did not start the process now. Having a study is a good idea… waiting the months that it may take just puts more officers at immediate risk.”

McLaughlin emphasized that every department goes through cycles and said he believes the current staffing issue won’t exist for too long, and that the department will become competitive again.

He added that the three officers leaving the town were assets to the town and will be missed.

“They were outstanding employees, outstanding men and outstanding police officers. Ocean View’s loss is Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Selbyville’s gain.”