WINSLOW — Police officers are responding to more dangerous situations than they did 13 years ago, but department staffing hasn’t kept pace, according to Police Chief Shawn O’Leary, who is making a pitch for funding for more officers.

“The types of calls for service have changed drastically over the years,” O’Leary said. “Officers are dealing with more violence, and many of the people we respond for have serious substance abuse problems or mental health issues.”

Without adequate staffing, officers and the public, can be in danger, he said.

The town council has tentatively approved an $83,000 increase to the Police Department’s budget next year to help address the issue. The funding includes $70,000 for a new supervisor and $13,000 to pay for additional reserve officers.

The department’s proposed $754,250 budget is a nearly 13 percent increase from last year, and one of the largest increases for the police in years, said Town Manager Michael Heavener.

But the projected increase is still less than O’Leary’s original request of $131,000 to hire two new full-time officers.

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“I think we met them halfway,” said Council Chairman Gerald Saint Amand Thursday. “We need to protect our citizens a little more.”

The council expects to meet early next month to approve a final budget for 2015.

The Winslow Police Department has four full-time patrol officers, a detective, sergeant, school resource officer, lieutenant and chief, as well as eight part-time reserve officers.

In a presentation to the council, O’Leary said that while Winslow’s population, about 7,800, is larger than communities like Oakland, Fairfield and Gardiner, it has the smallest police force of the four towns.

Winslow officers also field more calls for service and make more arrests than the other communities, O’Leary said. In 2014, according his data, there were 623 physical arrests in town, compared to 479 in Oakland, 304 in Fairfield and 273 in Gardiner.

The number of calls for service each year have also increased, from about 4,000 in 2001 to almost 12,500 in 2014. Increasingly, officers respond to high priority calls like domestic violence, robberies or other dangerous situations, O’Leary said.

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The town last hired a new police officer in 2001 as part of a three-year cops in schools grant, and then retained the position after it expired, with the school paying 66 percent and the town covering the rest.

In 2008, the town took responsibility for the majority of funding for the position. Since Winslow pays for most of the officer’s salary, he is often called on to cover issues in town instead of serving in the school, O’Leary said.

“It just wasn’t working, for the (school resource officer) or the school,” O’Leary said.

Starting next year, Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow, has agreed to pay 75 percent of the position, so the officer will work in the schools full time, leaving the department shorthanded.

The problem is especially acute during the night shift, O’Leary said.

The department keeps a patrol officer and supervisor on overnight, but between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., only one officer is on duty. If he has to respond alone to a potentially violent situation, it can increase the likelihood that the officer will have to use armed force, O’Leary said.

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Those calls are coming in with more frequency.

As an example, O’Leary pointed to an incident in March 2014, when a lone Winslow police officer was dispatched to a reported house invasion involving three armed people.

Earlier this month, an officer had to deal with a suicidal person armed with a knife, again alone.

In other circumstances, police haven’t been able to respond to motor vehicle accidents, leave the scene of an incident to deal with a higher priority call or weren’t able to respond to a call because they were taking a suspect to the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, he said.

Agencies the department relies on to respond with mutual aid are dealing with the same problems his department is, and there’s no guarantee they will be able to respond if an officer needs backup, O’Leary said.

To reserve its manpower, the department has limited the arrests it makes for minor offenses, taken more complaints over the telephone instead of in person and reduced any form of community outreach, O’Leary said.

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The department doesn’t have the resources to act proactively on tips received from the public or keep an eye on problem areas, such as residences where there is known drug use, he added.

“The staff here have done this type of work with limited resources and without complaining,” O’Leary said.

“We could do a lot more,” he added, “this is just bare minimum.”

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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