Police & Fire

Report: South Orange Police Dept. Could Be 'Leaner, More Efficient'

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Consultant James McCabe presents the findings of a police operations study to the South Orange Board of Trustees on Thursday. Credits: Amy Kiste Nyberg
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South Orange Police Chief James Chelel comments on the study of the SOPD at Thursday's Board of Trustees meeting. Credits: Amy Kiste Nyberg
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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Reorganizing the structure of the police department could eliminate up to eight positions and make the department more efficient, according to a report on police operations presented to the Board of Trustees on Thursday night.

The president of the South Orange Police Benevolent Association, Adrian Acevedo, said after the meeting that the idea of cutting positions is “ludicrous” and that staff levels, currently at 50 officers, are inadequate. He said that ideally, at least 57 officers are needed in order to do proactive policing.

The lead researcher, James McCabe, said the South Orange Police Department provides “excellent response and service.” The average time for police response to a call is less than five minutes, and the average time spent on a call is calculated at 30.8 minutes. McCabe called the response time “outstanding.”

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McCabe said that in 2011, police responded to 12,433 calls for service. Data show that 25 percent of those calls were for traffic enforcement, followed by 18.7 percent for check/investigation and 17.5 percent for alarms.

One way to increase “operational efficiencies” is to examine the need for a police officer in the various categories of service, he said. For example, 98 percent of alarm calls turn out to be false alarms, according to McCabe, and eliminating immediate police response to those calls would be one way of reallocating police resources.

Acevedo said, “The folks in this town are accustomed to a level of service, and I think when they know … that our ability for us to continue that level is being attacked … when we have some outside company coming in and saying we can even do less, I think the public is going to disagree with that.”

McCabe also suggested that deployment of officers did not match the workload. An analysis of workload showed police are busiest in the evening, so shift overlaps that occur in the morning and early afternoon “are over and above what is called for based on demand,” he said.

Another recommendation McCabe made was that the village “take a harder look at sick leave management.” The report notes that in 2011, officers utilized a total of 599 sick days, over 12 sick days per sworn officer. “There appears to be an overextended use of sick time that demonstrates mismanagement of sick leave, employee dissatisfaction and potential abuse,” the report stated.

Trustees had a number of questions for McCabe, whose presentation highlighted the content of the 88-page report (view the entire report here).

One area that trustees indicated needed more attention was the impact of Seton Hall University on policing needs. McCabe said that “there are ample resources to address the demands Seton Hall puts on the department” and that the department and the university have a good working relationship. However, he had no data on what percentage of police calls involve Seton Hall and said his study did not address the performance of the university’s public safety staff, who are not sworn police officers.

Village President Alex Torpey pressed McCabe about the value of a police presence as a crime deterrent. “How do you quantify … the value of ‘non-committed’ time spent driving around?” he asked. McCabe acknowledged there is no way to measure how many crimes may have been prevented.

Trustee Mark Rosner said that the three key elements he identified in the report were to study ways in which scheduling could increase efficiency, as well as to address the need for upgraded facilities and equipment.

The report noted that police headquarters building is in “disrepair” and recommended the SOPD and village contract with an architect to redesign the facility. McCabe noted the condition of the building may be a factor in the high sick leave rates: “It is not a pleasant place to work.”

The village paid the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety $50,000 to conduct the study and write a report. Police Chief James Chelel said he was disappointed that the process was not “more collaborative.” He noted that the drawn-out process of compiling the report caused anxiety in the department. “If I had some part in this process, it would have been smoother,” he said.

Acevedo was more direct. “They (ICMA) got paid $50,000 for giving us a huge crock – pretty stinky, what smells in it.”

The board voted 6-0 to accept the report, noting that the vote was simply an acknowledgement that the report had been received and did not constitute acceptance of any of its recommendations.

The reporter is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.

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