Study of SOPD to Evaluate Staffing, Services

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The village has hired a Washington,  D.C-based consulting group to perform a four-month “best practices” study of the police department.

The study will analyze whether the police department has levels of staffing, scheduling, and emergency response abilities that are up to par and cost effective.

Specifically, South Orange has requested a survey of the effectiveness and efficiency of departmental procedures, from responding to emergencies to everyday office functions. The consultants also will evaluate staffing, scheduling and the condition and location of police facilities. In addition, the village is seeking recommendations for future emergency preparedness

The contract was awarded to ICMA’s Center for Public Safety Management on Feb. 15. “(ICMA) was data-driven, they understood what we were looking for, they have a lot of experience and provide a really great service for the community,” Trustee Michael Goldberg said.

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The study, which will cost the Village approximately $50,000, was commissioned in part because South Orange revenues are not expected to keep pace with projected expenditures, according to the village’s request for proposals, referred to as a RFP document.

Part of the concern regarding expenditures comes from the state’s 2 percent tax cap, Goldberg said. Personnel costs, primarily police and fire, make up the lion’s share of the municipal budget.

The police department’s 2010 budget was $6,508,999 plus benefits, according to the request for proposals, while the 2011 budget was $6,662,587 plus benefits, a 1.7 percent increase. The budget also increased from 2008 to 2009, from $6,600,077 to $6,685,185, a 1.3 percent increase. However, from 2009 to 2010, the department’s budget decreased 2.6 percent. The majority of expenses are salary-related, budget documents for the Village show. Goldberg added equipment is another large expense.

Police Chief James Chelel did not respond to several attempts to contact him for comment.

Goldberg said the exact timeline for the study is a little unclear as the Village has to consider when the vendor is available and when the police have time to provide input.

The company has begun gathering some data for the study, though, according to Adrian Acevedo, president of Local 12, South Orange’s Police Benevolent Association. Acevedo said some of the officers had received calls from the company to request certain data, although he was unsure exactly what type of data they were inquiring about.

According to Goldberg and Acevedo, the PBA and the Village negotiate a new contract every four years. Membership in the union is voluntary, Acevedo said, but added that all the officers are members. There are separate unions for rank-and-file officers and for upper-level administration, Acevedo said.

The last contract ended in 2011, and the Village and the department are currently in negotiations for the next contract, also expected to be a four-year agreement. According to Acevedo, the previous contract wasn’t finalized until 2011.

“Every single year when we go through the budget cycle we are told that the police need more manpower, because back in the past they had 57 officers,” said Goldberg, who is also chairman of the Public Safety Committee. According to the RFP, the department had 57 full-time officers in 2008, but through attrition there are now 52.

Goldberg said it can be difficult, though, to base budgetary decisions on what happened in the past without additional contextual information.

According to Acevedo, the loss of officers and of certain units, such as the bicycle unit, has hurt the department’s morale and productivity.  More cuts, Acevedo said, would only further harm a department already spread thin.

Acevedo said he was unsure why in the last two years the budget continued to go up despite downsizing, but he suggested that the Village sometimes waited until the last minute to replace equipment, when it would have cost less had they spent money on upkeep and maintenance.

Acevedo acknowledged the Village’s budget constraints and agreed the study could be useful “as long as it is done objectively.”

"If it’s truly done objectively, than it will be useful I think, but there’s always that idea that if someone’s paying someone else do a survey or study or poll, that group might be inclined to give the payee what they want,” Acevedo said.

He added that instead of spending $50,000, the Village could have just come to the department and asked to go over budgetary and procedural information.

Goldberg stressed that the Village did not want ICMA to approach the study from any particular point of view, but instead to look at all the elements of the SOPD with an unbiased and analytical eye.

He added, “(South Orange) thought it would be worthwhile to have a third party come in,” to look at the situation from an objective point of view.”

ICMA will submit written report and make a formal presentation of the results to the Board of Trustees, which will include recommendations to address current concerns as well as long-term issues.

Caitlin Carroll is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts designed to give students real-world experience.

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