HARWICH — While the police department is down a couple of members, the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted the department's operation significantly, and Police Chief David Guillemette said he considers staffing stable. Guillemette was responding to concerns raised by Selectman Michael MacAskill about the impact a spending freeze instituted by the board might have on public safety.
The spending freeze applies to non-essential department needs. When the board was discussing it last week, MacAskill said the police department had a patrolman out on disability and a dispatcher had left the department. He suggested, given the added pressures the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on the public safety departments—potentially including overtime budgets—filling those positions should be considered essential.
Guillemette made a remote presentation to selectmen last Friday evening. He said at this point staffing is stable, though the department is down one dispatcher and two patrol officers. A trainee is scheduled to graduate from the police academy in July, he added.
Despite the absence of the two officers, Guillemette said the department is not “bleeding a lot of overtime.” He said there is nothing thus far generating unusual overtime, which is less so far this year, week-by-week, than last year. The impact of the two open patrol positions has been minimal because of the unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 crisis, he said. The department has been able to maintain normal staffing while spending less overtime because schools are closed and the school resource officers are available for patrols; there are very limited court appearances required due to the crisis; there is no training scheduled; very limited vacation time is being taken; and the department is at off-season staffing levels.
The department has not been seriously impacted by illness or quarantines at this time, he said, although there is a plan in place should that happen.
The impact of an open position in dispatch has been mitigated by the other dispatchers adjusting their schedules to more evenly cover open shifts created by the vacancy, he said. Only two open shifts a week are being filled with overtime. The overtime expense will be offset by the salary budgeted for the open position through the end of the fiscal year, he said.
MacAskill asked Guillemette to provide him with overtime numbers. He also wanted to know how long it would take to fill the open dispatcher’s position. MacAskill said he was concerned that the department might have to pull a patrol officer off the street to fill the two dispatch shifts at an overtime rate.
Guillemette said he will provide the overtime figures. But to return the department to full staffing “there are a number of challenges to the hiring process at this time when you consider social distancing. Face-to-face interviews would not be recommended. Field training for both dispatchers and patrol officers require interaction inside the social distancing guidelines,” he said.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said he was satisfied with the present short-term operation, but recommended a long-term plan be developed to get the staff up to its full complement .
Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr. also filed a memo with the board relating to staffing and hiring. He said the department is currently fully staffed and the only anticipated vacancies are a part-time clerk sometime in May and when he retires in July.