OVPD back up to full strength of eight

With the recent hiring of Patrolman Sidney Ballentine and Patrolman A.J. McKetchnie, Ocean View has beefed up its number of full-time officers to its full complement of eight.

Ballentine comes to the force with 21 years of service as a military police officer, the last four at West Point.

Originally from Georgia, Ballentine grew up in South Carolina, Michigan and New York and then joined the Army, right out of high school in New York. With the Army, he has been to or lived in Germany, Spain, Cuba, Hawaii, Kansas, New Jersey, New York and California.

After retiring from the Army, Ballentine said, he knew he didn’t want to retire and raise his children in a city. He and his wife had driven though Delaware on the way to see family, and they decided to make the move to the state.

“My wife found a place, and we said, ‘That’s it.’ So I settled here without a job,” he recalled.

After working briefly in management at Food Lion, he applied for and got the job as a patrolman in Ocean View. He then started training at the Delaware State Police Academy, in order to get his state certification, and after graduation started at his new position.

“After 21 years, it’s like speaking a new language,” he said of the change from military police to patrolling a municipality. “And in the Army there’s not really a bad guy, and here you don’t know who the bad guy is. In the Army, it’s different. You could have a guy on suicide watch and you tell him to sit down, and [because of your rank] he does it. And, five minutes before, the guy might have been hanging out of a window.”

“Here, on my eighth day, we had a guy with a shotgun,” he noted. “When I made the move here, people kept talking about ‘sleepy Ocean View.’ Well, I haven’t seen it.”

Ballentine is unique in that, although he is a recent graduate of the police academy, he comes with years of experience and education in enforcement. He said he mostly wants to get past the procedural things that are new to him so he can get to a comfortable place within his new position.

“It’s a familiar but new environment,” he said. “But it’s a lot of fun — you never know what you are going to do.”

He said he knew he was in the right place when he walked into the Ocean View Police Department and asked to see Chief Kenneth McLaughlin. When they asked who was calling, he said, “Sid.”

“And they said, ‘Come on back.’”

Besides the friendly first impression of the town, Ballentine said he enjoys that municipal police work is multi-faceted.

“I love working for the chief,” he continued. “I like the town and the pace of work. The state [troopers] seem to have to go from one complaint to another. Here, you can spend three hours at the elementary school, talking about strangers, seatbelts and bike helmets, or do business checks or senior call-ins. That’s police work, too, and people don’t usually get to see that side of it.”

Patrolman A.J. McKetchnie also started with the Ocean View Police Department in September, after graduating from the police academy in April.

Originally from Illinois, he made the move to Delaware with friends and said he enjoys the different pace of life in the area as well.

McKetchnie was also most recently in the military police, serving in Afghanistan for one year. He said he has had aspirations of becoming a police officer for as long as he can remember.

To him, the most poignant difference between life as a patrolman in Ocean View and life in Afghanistan is being pro-active rather than just reacting.

“In the military, you are more trained for combat situations with law enforcement. Here, it can be more about preventing crime and being proactive. You can go to the schools and talk to the kids, because that’s where it starts and, as they grow older, they can pass that on.”

McKetchnie said he also appreciates that fact that, as a municipal patrolman, he wears many different hats and gets to really become involved in the community and keeping everyone feeling safe and secure.

“Here, you can do the senior check-ins and business checks, and keep an eye out for people. The best thing about being a police officer is being proactive and helping people become more aware or their surroundings — and being able to interact with the public,” he said.

“Police work is not all about going out and arresting people and writing tickets and throwing people in jail. It’s more about us as a community, and people helping us so we can help them.”

Local departments work to hire, retain quality officers

The hiring of the two officers in Ocean View again brings that department up to its full level of staffing after months of operating with an officer shortage. Hiring new officers to replace those who retire or move to a new position is a significant issue for local police departments, both in time and money. Local municipalities generally invest more than $60,000 in training and certification costs for each new hire, before they even come on board. And, even then, filling routine vacancies on the force can be fraught with difficulties.

Another recent hire who was introduced to the town in February – 20-year veteran Philadelphia officer Mary Rehill – decided to take a job offer from another agency after receiving her Delaware certification, rather than taking Ocean View’s offer. The OVPD had to start its hiring process over again and again pay for certification training for the new officers.

McLaughlin said recently that enticements like the town’s take-home-car policy help him hire quality officers who will join the force and stay with the OVPD once they’re certified. However, that policy was recently suspended by the town council as a cost-saving measure. Nonetheless, the OVPD has managed to bring in two new officers this year.

Having eight officers patrolling the town of about 1,000 full-time residents follows a long-term trend of growth for police departments in coastal Sussex County in the last decade. The town once had only three officers, before it moved to a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation.

Nearby Selbyville was once patrolled by just one officer – Police Chief Ward “Junior” Collins, who was the primary law enforcement officer there from 1966 to 2001, when he retired. Today, it has seven full-time officers and four part-time officers. Two recent hires there came from the same graduating class as McKetchnie and Ballentine, and replaced SPD veterans.

According to Selbyville Police Chief W. Scott Collins – son of the town’s original police chief and who has been with the department for seven years – four of his current officers have been with the department at least 10 years and the others were hired as a group about two years ago. All of his part-time officers have been there at least two years.

Collins said he would like to fill one more full-time position to bring their squad to one lieutenant, one sergeant, two corporals and seven patrolmen.

“Our goal is to get one more full-time officer,” said Collins. “We’re well-staffed — more than before, but it helps to have eight so you can have dual coverage every shift.”

In Bethany Beach, Chief Mike Redmond, who has been with that department for 20 years as an officer and chief, said he is proud of his squad’s growth and their ability for retention.

The Bethany Beach Police Department has nine full-time officers, with experience ranging from 11 years to eight months. They have a lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal, four patrolmen first-class and one patrolman – a recent graduate of the academy as well. (He replaces former officer Robert Talbot, who pleaded guilty to one count of theft by False Pretense this past summer, related to false overtime reports and medical expenses filed with the town.)

Redmond said the BBPD has dual coverage on each shift, 24 hours a day, and, like Ocean View, their officers work four shifts on/four shifts off.

He also said the officers he has lost have generally resigned or retired, so, as for retention, he is proud of the BBPD’s history.

The South Bethany Police Department has six full-time and two part-time officers. According to Master Cpl. Eric Watkins, they have a very experienced squad and are known for having great retention. Watkins, who has been with the SBPD for 15 years, said, “I was the new guy until we hired Josh four years ago. He replaced Sr./Cpl. Lev Ellian, who had 12 years here when he left to go to the Montgomery Park Police in Maryland.”

South Bethany’s police chief, James Deloach, has been with the SBPD for 30 years. Other officers on the force – including two patrolmen, one PFC, two master corporals and two lieutenants – have varying degrees of service, from 17 years down to one year for one of their part-timers. The two part-time positions have been added in the last four years.

Other local towns looking to grow their police forces include Frankford, whose police department just reopened in November 2007 with the hiring of former Dagsboro Chief Bill Dudley to head the department, in lieu of 20 hours of contracted state police protection per week. The town had experienced a surge in crime since disbanding its police department. They hope to hire additional officers within the next two to three years.

And, in Millville, discussion continues on whether the town will start its own police department after years of contracting with the state police for part-time protection. That town’s population is expected to boom in the coming years, with the start of construction at Millville By the Sea earlier this year.

The Delaware State Police reportedly have between four and seven officers available at any one time to patrol non-incorporated areas of south-coastal Sussex County – a total area of about 400 square miles – in addition to calls to respond to towns with no police departments of their own and to assist municipal departments.