South Bethany police concerns loom, but new hires are in works


Troy Crowson pointed to the headline story in this month’s The Police Chief magazine: an article on retaining employees with non-paycheck items, such as take-home vehicles, and opportunities for advancement and education.

“We had all this stuff in place for years,” said Crowson, chief of the South Bethany Police Department. “The frustration with me is we had a system.”

Officers are leaving because of concerns about department stability and changes in advancement opportunities, Crowson said.

“We’re short-staffed. We’re trying to still maintain decent service, but it’s limited,” Crowson said. “I do think it can be solved … meet in the middle, get staffed, and get back to business.”

The pendulum always swings, he said, based on budgetary concerns or staffing concerns.

“We have had approximately 1,952 man-hours lost from May through September. These hours do not include our current officers’ vacation, sick or comp time,” Crowson wrote in October.

This summer, the SBPD relied heavily on the Town’s seasonal officer, extending his season by several months and changing his job description from basic traffic patrol to paperwork and “grunt work” to free up the regular officers.

But for 24-hour coverage, South Bethany needs five officers.

The police are finally ready to fill the first of two vacancies. Police Chief Troy Crowson has recommended hiring a candidate who passed all the tests and indicated a willingness to work. Next, it’s up to Town Manager Maureen Hartman to approve the hire, and South Bethany Town Council will vote upon the new hire at the Oct. 25 workshop (after the Coastal Point’s deadline). The Town has already budgeted for the position.

But right now, the South Bethany Police Department only has three officers, plus the chief. One year ago, there were six officers. The council chose not to fill the first vacancy in the winter. Then, two employees left, in May and September.

Crowson said the uncertainty and rank structure have contributed to South Bethany’s lack of retention and difficulty attracting new candidates. Despite ongoing advertising, the SBPD has had trouble filling positions.

“Applications for these vacancies have not been plentiful after phone inquiries by potential candidates concerning rank structure,” Crowson wrote.

Ranks are the big concern

Last winter, the town council made major changes to the SBPD’s employee policies and pay, stemming from a 2017 study.

The ICMA Center for Public Safety Management (ICMA/CPSM) was hired to review police department policies, procedures, overtime and other pay structures, and recommend updates for clarity, consistency and improvement.

Crowson recommended against the proposed rank structure. He said he was never consulted, and he would have appreciated the chance to ask CPSM what other small, non-union departments operate successfully in such a manner.

He said he understands why CPSM didn’t consult with the other six police officers, with the scent of a potential lawsuit in the air, as the fulltime officers had signed a demand letter to the Town in mid-2017, citing concerns with overtime, holiday pay and promotions.

As a result of the study, among other changes, the town council adopted a structure of six ranks, including the chief. That’s a big change from what the town council had perceived to be 17 ranks previously.

“We do not have 17 ranks — these steps were obtained by some if they met criteria, and steps were not subject to much debate, provided training or education requirements were met per policy,” Crowson wrote. “This incentive program was designed for a small police department to provide a sense of movement and feeling of advancement when the ranks were stagnate and the possibility of advancement didn’t exist.”

For instance, a corporal can hit serval different levels, but he or she wouldn’t advance to sergeant or lieutenant if two officers already held those positions.

In a letter to the town council last winter, Crowson shared his concerns with the new structure.

“While I don’t disagree with all the changes, there are a few I feel are devastating to our Department, particularly the elimination of ranks and establishing one recommended by CPSM,” which doesn’t appear to be used by any other small, non-union department in Delaware, he said.

To save money, Crowson proposed an alternative rank structure that would retain prior rank structure without the step-in-grade program, which he said he feels might be confusing to some.

The step program was approved around 2000, as a result of labor negotiation with employees, as an incentive for positive work performance and morale. If criteria were met, officers would get a 2-percent step salary increase for attaining continuing education and satisfactory performance.

This summer, the staff proposed another rank structure to Mayor Tim Saxton and Mayor Pro-Tem Sue Callaway. With an eye toward compromise, Crowson also proposed a smaller rank structure. But the town council has had no new public discussions about re-structuring the police department.

Then, earlier this month, Gerald “Gerry” Masiello was appointed to the town council, bringing decades of law-enforcement experience.

“I will say, with the new addition on council, there’s some police expertise. I think there’s a bit of misinformation and misunderstanding between ranks, what works, what doesn’t work. … I welcome Jerry’s addition,” Crowson said.

Other concerns

The department also no longer has a written pay scale, Crowson said, which once showed officers how much they could earn next year or in five years. The scale was created to solve previous problems with more arbitrary pay raises, which could lead to newer hires making more than someone with longer experience.

Plus, Crowson said, he isn’t sure how annual raises will be determined in the next fiscal year. Will the town council give a flat dollar amount for Crowson to divvy up, or decide that everyone gets a certain percent raise? Evaluations are also done with the new fiscal year, which was historically when officers could prove their merit for the step increase.

Sure, Crowson said, recruitment is down nationwide, but qualified candidates might seek incentives elsewhere, such as take-home cars or more advancement opportunities — things South Bethany now lacks but once offered. And South Bethany isn’t the only town with a pension, healthcare and beach living to attract candidates.

Police coverage is close to 24 hours

For non-emergencies, people in South Bethany can try the duty-officer’s line 24 hours a day, at (302) 539-3996. If no one answers, police suggested people try waiting five to 10 minutes and then call back. If there is still no answer, they can call (302) 855-2980, and the SUSCOM dispatch center can call another police station and contact the chief if necessary. For emergencies, people should always call 911.

Resident Suzie La Sota in mid-October asked whether the town council is concerned that Crowson had trouble filling the empty spots.

“Yes. That’s why we had him speak tonight, to make sure the public knew we had coverage. He explained how you gain coverage this evening … police will come, whether it’s an agency nearby to get coverage,” said Mayor Tim Saxton. “We have consistently worked with Troy about hiring…”

But he declined to say why potential candidates were not hired.

“I cannot speak to that publically. It’s a personnel issue. … That would not be fair to anyone,” Saxton said.

The mailer

In late September, a neon flyer was mailed to households around town. “Keep South Bethany Safe; PD Proud!” It was anonymously signed “Concerned citizens of South Bethany.”

The authors encouraged people to demand action from the new town council.

“Why are we losing officers and what is being done to rectify this? Our Chief needs the tools to attract and retain competent staff to protect and serve South Bethany. He cannot squeeze 5 pounds of sugar from a 2 pound bag,” the flyer read. “Please contact the Council and urge them to take proactive steps to ensure a safe South Bethany. Make your vote for change matter.”

Crowson said that neither he nor the SBPD officers were involved with the flyer, and he had no idea who was.

“I don’t disagree with a lot of the message there,” Crowson said. In fact, “It’s not agree or disagree. There’s a lot of facts in there.”

 

By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter