Commonwealth Journal

April 26, 2013

Acting police chief: ‘We’re worn out’

By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

Somerset’s acting police chief is asking city officials to consider restructuring the department’s pay and classification plan to help assuage retainment problems. 
“Guys, your police department’s tired,” said Somerset Police Department Acting Police Chief Doug Nelson. “We’re tired and we’re worn out.”
Nelson appeared before Somerset City Council Monday during a public budget workshop session. Nelson said his department is overworked and underpaid — and he said he’s losing “good men” to other agencies that can pay more. 
“Your police department needs some money, and that’s why you keep losing people,” Nelson said. “You lost two (officers) to Kentucky State Police this year, and they will take two to four from you next time.
“You shouldn’t be mad about that because your guys are that good,” Nelson added.
Nelson said that, as of Monday, the department was lacking five officers to be at full staff. Nelson said the department currently has four officers at the academy — a grueling 21-week program that prepares would-be officers for their careers. After they graduate from the academy, new officers must accompany a veteran officer for a certain amount of time before hitting the streets on their own. 
Nelson said the department has reached out in an attempt to hire more officers, but he said that has not been fruitful.
“I tested 50 people for jobs in the last two months and we ended up with zero that could pass the background check,” Nelson said. 
Nelson said a number of factors have added to SPD’s problems. He said a recent annexation by the city — in which more than 40 miles of roadways surrounding Somerset were taken in — has upped SPD’s call volume considerably. Nelson said his department has been working an average of 125 accidents each month, thanks to the additional roadways that have fallen under SPD’s jurisdiction. 
That means more officers need to be trained to reconstruct accidents, which is a special detail that must be carried out by those trained officers in the event of fatal accidents. Nelson said that’s thousands of dollars in additional training costs. 
Nelson also said an influx of special events, such as 5K run/walks, and traditional evens such as Somernites Cruise and Master Musicians Festival, are keeping his officers incredibly busy. 
“And guys, we don’t get no help,” said Nelson. “It is what it is. Your overtime money that you budgeted goes toward events and covering the streets.”
And recent upgrades to the department’s radios, in order to stay in compliance with new regulations, has cost the department about $10,000, according to Nelson. Nelson also said the department is in dire need of upgrades to its firearms as well. 
“It’s a nightmare when you get your pistol out and it malfunctions on you,” said Nelson. 
But Nelson emphasized that the variety of training programs SPD officers undergo are necessary in order to keep the agency on the leading edge of law enforcement agencies. 
Nelson said SPD’s new crime tip program, during which people who wish to report a crime anonymously can do so via text or online, has garnered some attention from law enforcement agencies across the nation. 
“You was really one of the first that developed that program,” Nelson told the city council. 
Officers also undergo active shooter training programs, and SPD has an aviation program featuring the AutoGyro Calidus. Through use of that aircraft, SPD has been able to conduct aerial patrols, assist patrol units with radio calls, monitor traffic flows during special events, and conduct surveillance and inspection of critical infrastructure owned by the city. 
Nelson said he will be forced do de-obligate grant funds for a DUI program and a traffic safety program because he doesn’t have the staff to carry those programs out. 
“We don’t have people to carry out the program, we’re so short-staffed right now,” Nelson said. 
Nelson said something has to be done to help keep officers with the department — and he had just the idea for it. 
Nelson said he and Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler spoke about the issue and decided that a “restructuring” of the department’s positions may be the best option. Nelson, who has served as acting police chief for around six years, said the best way to give his officers much-needed money is to eliminate the assistant chief’s position altogether.
That would entail placing Nelson in either the police chief’s position — something that has been the topic of much debate over the years — or in another position. 
Nelson was named acting chief after a number of individuals were promoted to the position and then resigned amid a tumultuous political climate within the city. Councilors have been reluctant in recent years to approve Nelson as police chief, instead choosing to let him serve as acting police chief. The issue was most recently brought up in July, when, according to an agenda for a city council meeting, Girdler intended to ask that city councilors approve placing Nelson in the official position of police chief. That plan was scrapped, however, and the issue was not brought up during the July 9 meeting. 
“The chief of police is not a good job, and it’s been dirtied up over the years,” Nelson told the council on Monday. “If you do away with the assistant chief position you can put me as whatever you want and divide the rest of this money up between my men.” 
Scrapping the assistant chief position would free up around $50,000 for the department, according to Nelson. With benefits included, it would amount to around $75,000. Nelson said those officers who don’t receive promotions could see a bump of around $1,500 on top of an already-budgeted $1,000 raise. He said those who receive promotions would see an increase of around $3,500 total. 
“If you do not do this you will continue to lose people,” Nelson said. “You lost nine people last year.”
That number does not include Officer Brooks Barleston, who passed away in March after an illness. 
Nelson said ideally the department would have a police chief, and four captains working directly under that chief who would run the department’s different divisions (patrol, detectives, administration, and ABC). 
Nelson emphasized that any councilor’s issues with him don’t need to stand in the way of paying the department’s officers as he thinks they should be paid. 
“I’ve got to fight for my men, and you all can’t blame me for that,” Nelson said. “If I’m the hang up here, you can call me whatever you want to call me. That’s a title, it don’t amount to a hill of beans. ... Don’t let that hang you up. 
“I think I’m the hang up and I don’t need to be the hang up here,” Nelson added. 
Nelson’s message seemed to be heard loud and clear.
“You’re the department head,” said Councilor Tom Eastham. “You’re the professional, I’m not, when it comes to the police department. 
“We’re here to listen to your needs,” Tom Eastham continued. “It doesn’t matter that the other departments are needing money, if there’s a recruitment issue, then that becomes a priority. If you’re short-handed, we need to address that.” 
Councilor Jimmy Eastham echoed those thoughts, and suggested that Nelson prepare an ideal restructuring of the department to bring back to city council during another workshop meeting. 
“It’s pretty evident we have a need in the police department,” Jimmy Eastham said.