The South Bethany Police Department doesn’t have room to properly do its job. It’s not because the SBPD suddenly grew in staff. (It hasn’t.) In reality, the police department wasn’t built for all of today’s needs.
“It has nothing to do with the size of our department. … We’ve got plenty of room for people,” Police Chief Troy Crowson told the town council on Nov. 18. “We have issues with the functionality for the things it needs to contain.”
In 2015, Crowson and the council began working toward a potential 936-square-foot expansion of the current 1,736-square-foot building.
“In short, your police [building] does not meet the full needs of a police department today,” said Gregory Warren, professional law-enforcement consultant and president of the Strategic Management Research Center. “In today’s world, I don’t have to tell you that risk mitigation is major present-day concern.”
Warren said South Bethany’s police department doesn’t even meet standards of the Delaware Police Accreditation Commission, which was created in 2008, about the same time the building was completed.
The building suffers a variety of faults, many involving the close quarters of prisoners, who are generally within sight or sound of SBPD staff, visitors, potential witnesses, computer screens and each other.
Prisoners can become unruly at any time, sometimes triggered by a seemingly innocuous question, such as “Did you take your medication today?” Crowson said.
“I’ve been assaulted by [people] I never would have expected to assault me … because they didn’t want to comply,” Crowson said. “You just don’t know when you’re going to have those issues.”
“Right now, your armory is located in your locker room, which is located in your kitchen,” Warren said, reiterating points from an August presentation. As a result, the multipurpose room is slightly useless in any of those roles, since no one wants to change clothes in a kitchen or eat in an armory.
“Right now, you’re processing — which is unheard of — you’re processing prisoners in the same room you process evidence,” Warren said. “You’ve got to do more at this point.”
Warren suggested a sense of urgency in rectifying the situation because of liability. The SBPD knows the building’s shortcomings. If a prisoner was injured, or evidence was mishandled, a judge wouldn’t look kindly on a police department that failed to improve its flaws, especially when neighboring municipalities have. An entire court case could be thrown out on such technicalities, in addition to the negative publicity that would follow.
And that liability exists, whether SBPD has one or 100 arrests each year. The SBPD is responsible for the safety of its staff, visitors, evidence and — yes, the prisoners, too.
The council suggested other options, such as processing suspects at other, better-equipped, local police stations. Crowson said that is already done when SBPD needs backup, but they don’t want to wear out their welcome.
Why was such an imperfect building erected in the first place?
Previously, the police department was housed in a trailer. When the Town allocated some money for a new station, the SBPD took what they could get.
“We got the best we could get,” Crowson said. “We had to make all those functions work within that space. … The functions that we’re asking for aren’t any different from the functions we asked for back in [the early 2000s], but the space just didn’t allow for it. We’ve basically been operating as best we can. … None of our officers are complaining. “
“I applaud you. I think [you’ve done] an admirable job with what you have,” Warren said. “But what you have is inadequate.”
Pat Ryan of Ryan Architecture LLC had assisted in the previous construction project in the early 2000s.
On. Nov. 18, he presented a conceptual design, or first draft, of the 39-by-24-foot police station addition. Primarily, the new rooms would give the SBPD room to stretch out. The size is not related to the number of employees.
“As a consultant from the law-enforcement perspective, I’m not as worried about square footage as [I am about] functionality,” said Warren, adding that he has seen bigger and smaller departments.
He said the right design should last 20 to 30 years.
“You’re just separating the functions,” Crowson said. “We’ve got the bare minimum space that we’re trying to use … to keep costs down.”
In the redesign, each of the functions (kitchenette, evidence, armory) would get their own separate room. There will be no holding cell (which can be pricy). The SBPD would continue with just a prisoner bench, plus a separate area for juveniles.
Warren said the proposed layout would likely meet DPAC building requirements (although Ryan wanted to review the standards before promising that).
Councilman Tim Shaw has vocally supported the project, personally pledging to donate a clothes washer/dryer to the new station. He suggested a slightly larger building, if it means SBPD meets all its requirements now.
Ryan Architecture estimated construction costing $205,700, which is 3 percent higher than the mid-2015 estimate.
South Bethany might already have half the construction costs covered, with $50,000 in expected Sussex County police grants, plus a $50,000 citizen’s donation. The rest would come from budget surplus, said Mayor Pat Voveris.
She said the cost could be spread over the next two years, coming from the Town’s existing financial reserves, not a new tax.
“We’re a very frugal town. This is a very responsible council. We don’t do things willy-nilly,” Voveris said. “We have the funds to do it, and we still have plenty of money in the surplus. … Right now, we’re covered if we get approval to proceed.”
Some town citizens said they approved of the project whole-heartedly. Others asked the council to better understand the costs and requirements before voting.
But those building costs don’t include ongoing electricity, maintenance and so forth. (The town council had just received such estimates Friday evening, so the Budget & Finance Committee will review such additional costs in December.)
The council postponed the planned Nov. 18 vote on a $3,500 soil-boring test and the $29,000 design proposal (which Ryan Architecture LLC will re-estimate to ensure a design that complies with police standards).
If approved soon, designs could be done in January of 2017, with project bids in March, and construction from September to December.
After addressing the police building, the council will consider a town hall expansion, aiming to address a structure they said is also over-crowded with all the business that goes on.
More information is online at www.southbethany.org at the “PD Building Expansion Initiative” link.
In other news from the Nov. 18 council meeting:
• Police Officer Megan Loulou received the Crowe-McGrory Award for action in law enforcement that displayed her dedication to duty, the public and the community.
• Coming soon: No smoking. At the council’s request, the Charter & Code Committee is drafting a smoking ban for the beach, which would include all burning, smoking or inhaling of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
• The Charter & Code Committee is also drafting an ordinance to codify the traffic barricade that the council already enacted this summer, which prohibits any vehicle from entering Black Gum Drive from Kent Avenue from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., May 15 through Sept. 15.
Resident Ken Stephan said he still opposes the extended barricade hours, which he said he considers unfair to other South Bethany residents who, along with local visitors, also cut through that neighborhood. He proposed a public survey regarding the barricade. However, “They’re property owners in South Bethany. They deserve a break,” said Councilman Frank Weisgerber.
• The council approved a photography exhibition being held within Town Hall, from May to June of 2017, hosted by the Community Enhancement Committee.
The South Bethany Town Council’s next regular meeting is Friday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m.