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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 22, 2009
By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND Guilderland police officers recently, and their concerns are concerned that public safety, and the safety of patrol officers, is compromised by a lack of manpower in the department.
The president of the Police Benevolent Association said the union’s attorney is in the process of drafting a letter to the supervisor, to make him aware of their concerns.
In January, Supervisor Kenneth Runion announced he would be cut overtime hours in the police department, to reduce costs in the wake of a declining economy.
Republican councilmen Mark Grimm and Warren Redlich have since questioned the coverage in the department; Runion, a Democrat currently seeking re-election, has consistently maintained that coverage remained the same, and only overtime had been affected.
Brian Forte, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, explained to The Enterprise this week that there are four different zones in town covered by the Guilderland Police. Zone one runs from the city line to Johnston Road, and includes Crossgates Mall; Zone Two runs from Johnston Road to Willow Street; Zone Three runs from Willow Street, up the middle of Route 20, to the south, and includes Guilderland Center and Altamont; and Zone Four is from the north side of Willow Street up Route 20.
The Guilderland Police Department has about 30 members, and covers a town without about 34,000 residents.
Ideally, said Forte, there would be an officer in a patrol car on duty for each zone. He said that the department has felt “forever” that there is a need for increased manpower.
Currently, at any given time, three officers frequently patrol the town, police say. If two are needed for something as common as a domestic dispute, police say, that leaves just one for the rest of the town; other police agencies are stretched thin, too, and not always available for back-up. Overtime officers used to be called in for such situations, police says.
“Obviously, if you do not have enough people on the street, that could deter public safety. We understand that the supervisor has a budget to work with, but we are in a constant conversation with the town about the need for more coverage,” Forte said. He said the Police Benevolent Association attorney, Michael P. Ravalli, acts as the organization’s “voice box” and deals with communicating concerns to the town and the supervisor.
Runion told The Enterprise yesterday that he had not heard from any member of the Police Benevolent Association, or an attorney, about coverage concerns in the recent past. He said the only conversations he had with the attorney were in relation to officers’ seeking enhanced retirement benefits, an issue he said was still open for negotiation.
“I think the chief complaint of some of the officers is that we’ve cut the overtime and tried to make our shifts more efficient, and economize, because of the nature of the budget,” said Runion. He said coverage should not be a concern, because Guilderland is also covered by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, the New York State Troopers, and has agreements with other municipalities, such as Colonie.
“As long as a resident’s call is answered, I don’t think they’re going to care if it’s a Guilderland officer, a State Trooper, or a sheriff,” Runion said.
Chief of Police Carol Lawlor, who was backed by Runion in her 2008 appointment, said she went to a union meeting at the beginning of the year, and asked the members to cooperate with a reduction in overtime.
“I think there may be a couple of employees disgruntled about the overtime cuts, but, by and large I believe the union members are satisfied,” said Lawlor, whom some of the rank and file said they do not feel is standing up for the department, but rather siding with the supervisor.
According to Forte, at a union meeting in September, a majority of the department members voted to have their attorney draft a letter outlining their coverage and safety concerns. The letter, which has not yet been completed, will be reviewed at a union meeting tomorrow, and there will be another vote to decide whether or not it will be sent to Runion and Lawlor.
“I hope the letter will not cause a negative reaction. I think it will open the door for the administration to take a closer look at staffing and manpower,” Forte said.
At the Guilderland Town Board meeting on Oct. 20, the board voted to hire a full-time patrol officer, Matthew Hanzalik. Runion said the hire was not a result of coverage complaints from the police department, but was intended to fill a vacancy left by a retirement. The position had been budgeted for in both 2009 and 2010, said Runion.
Lawlor said that, over the summer, she had begun researching hiring part-time officers, to “enhance services.” She said it was a practice agencies nation-wide were looking into. Police officers have raised concerns that the part-timers, while saving the town money in benefits, would not be as qualified.
Runion said the chief had spoken with him about hiring part-time officers, which he said he would support because it would put additional officers on the street to do traffic enforcement, and community and neighborhood policing, so that full-time patrol officers could focus on the bigger calls. He said the department would only be willing to hire retired Guilderland Police officers.
“It would be additional personnel. We’re paying for the benefits of the retired officers anyway, so there would be some cost savings,” said Runion.
The supervisor said he was not sure what the police department’s issues with staffing were, but that he’d be willing to talk to the chief.
“We’re always open to discussion on those things,” Runion said.
“I hope the town will work with us to do what we can to make sure the department is providing the best protection to residents, which is our ultimate goal,” said Forte.