WOONSOCKET â€” As the newly seated Budget Commission begins eyeing possible cuts in personnel, Police Chief Tom Carey says he intends to lobby members to let the manpower cap on the Woonsocket Police Department phase out as scheduled at the end of the month.
The result of collective bargaining between the city and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the cap went into effect on Dec. 30, 2011, restricting manpower to 93 officers, eight fewer than the unionâ€™s contract normally allows.
The austerity measure has been gradually relaxed, but itâ€™s on track to sunset completely on June 30, allowing the departmentâ€™s staff to return to its traditional strength of 101 police officers.
Ironically, Carey says the departmentâ€™s troop strength is even lower now than it was when the cap took effect â€“ just 91 officers.
The department just added five recruits from the Municipal Police Academy two weeks ago, but itâ€™s losing manpower through retirement attrition faster than they can be replaced, partly because of the economic uncertainty facing the city.
â€śIt takes eight months to get someone to the point where theyâ€™re solo,â€ť says Carey. â€śItâ€™s four months at the academy, plus four months of field training before you can really count them as full-time police officers.â€ť
The chief says his immediate concern is whether the Budget Commission will allow him to send five more recruits to the police academyâ€™s next class this summer. He says he must have an answer for the academyâ€™s scheduling purposes by June 22.
â€śWe are short staffed,â€ť says Carey. â€śMy goal is to get as many police officers on the street as possible because our first priority is responding to calls for service. The fewer police officers you have, the less flexibility you have to do anything else.â€ť
A veteran of the St. Petersburg, Fla., police department, Carey says continued depletion of the staff would add pressure on overtime budgets to make sure ample backup is on hand to maintain on-the-job safety standards.
To some extent, Carey said crime trends and luck have been on the departmentâ€™s side for much of the time the personnel cap has been in place. There hasnâ€™t been a homicide in the city since Sept. 20, 2010, when gas station manager David Main was gunned down by in front of Citizens Bank, allegedly by Jason Wayne Pleau. Similarly, most other crimes generally categorized as violent are down, with the exception of sexual assaults.
For the first four months of the year, there were 31 sexual assaults reported, which is nearly triple what police logged during the same period last year.
The 2011 sample is small enough for the spike to be statistically misleading, but Carey says the department is exploring the trend and looking at how it might respond to be more proactive.
Most of the sex assaults involved people who knew each other, but not all of them.
â€śItâ€™s a concern,â€ť the chief said.
In general, calls for service â€“ the departmentâ€™s leading priority â€“ were also down slightly in the first quarter of the year, dropping from 6,363 in 2011 to 6,122.
Despite the manpower shortage, the departmentâ€™s response time to non-emergency calls for service has held steady at around five minutes.
â€śWhat that tells me is these officers have done a commendable job even with these constraints,â€ť says Carey. â€śEverybody still works hard.â€ť
Carey and other department heads are slated to meet with representatives of the Budget Commission on Friday to discuss their spending needs for next fiscal year.
State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly seated the Budget Commission on May 29 after the City Council asked for help in closing a $10 million budget shortfall in the Woonsocket Education Department. The five-member panel includes two elected officials, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and City Council President John Ward, and has total control over spending in municipal departments and in the schools.
In addition to issuing a supplemental tax bill for the current fiscal year, the panel is expected to seek savings wherever they can be found in attempts to close the gap. On Tuesday, the panel took no action on Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyanâ€™s request to recall more than half of some 92 teachers who are still holding pink slips.
The panel said it would revisit the issue of teacher cuts at its next meeting in Harris Hall, Monday at 8 a.m.