With rumors flying during the month-long winter council recess, the South Bethany Town Council finally tipped its hand, a little, regarding plans for the town’s police department.
In a townwide email sent on Jan. 21, the mayor and council stated, “There are no options being considered to eliminate or reduce the number of officer positions in the South Bethany Police Department. This Council is unified in its desire to maintain our own police force.”
Since autumn, the South Bethany Police Department has had one chief, three officers, two openings and very few applicants. The town has had no shortage of drama, though, as the elected officials and hired police chief try to rebuild a better set of staff policies, procedures, ranks and pay scale that were overhauled last year.
“It has become apparent to the new Council that a rank and pay-scale is needed for uniformity in the PD,” the email read. “The Mayor and Town staff, with the assistance of the new Town Solicitor, who has extensive experience in police matters, has drafted a brand-new Pay Plan, which includes 4 ranks, and 5-6 levels for pay increases within each rank after probationary status.”
The town council will officially review a new proposed rank structure and pay scale at the Feb. 8 council meeting, set for 6 p.m.
“Rates of pay have been compared with those of nearby towns, and the proposed SBPD pay scale is highly competitive with similar jurisdictions,” the document states.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but I haven’t had time to sit with it,” said Police Chief Troy Crowson. “I did make some suggestions for improvement,” he noted, that the town council may choose to incorporate in their final decision. He said he has not spent significant time with the plan, nor did he keep a copy of the document.
Public pushes forward
For the past few months, Larry Budd and about six other property owners have been digging into the facts, speaking up and pressing the town council to be transparent. They even created a “South Bethany Police Support” Facebook page to share information and continue asking questions.
“We see this as a great first step in improving transparency,” they responded in a public letter to the council on Jan. 22. “We especially welcome the candor” regarding what some have cited as a frayed relationship between the town council and police force. “There is more however to repair. Some ‘burying of the hatchet’ needs to occur between the TC and DPS officers.”
For instance, although Crowson and Hartman were directed to draft new staff procedures, they have yet not met for that purpose.
The residents said they believed some Town statements were disingenuous. They disagreed with the Town’s claims that the police budget grew dramatically over the years, based on the annual budget. Moreover, they argued that two of the departing police officers have specifically told council members that their reasons for leaving included the council’s limiting growth potential or incentives.
But, for now, “We appreciate the directness” of the town council’s desire to maintain the current number of positions in a town-wide police force, the group said.
Still questioning transparency issues, some residents have reminded the council to hold public votes for whatever changes do come.
“I think they’re turning a corner, but they’re not working with the police department, and I can’t say the police department’s completely without blame on that,” Budd told the Coastal Point.
“The letter the mayor sent out today is a big step, and I actually recommended he do that before the February meeting, because otherwise it would be a free-for-all,” Budd said.
It wasn’t until Nov. 9, 2018, that Mayor Tim Saxton announced that the town council had already assigned Hartman to begin working on a new plan. He wouldn’t give any more details, so, in absence of fact, rumors continued circulating. Without any other evidence, many people didn’t believe it when town council members repeatedly announced that they don’t intend to outsource policing or reduce the force.
Tempers continued to flare at the December council meeting, and South Bethany typically doesn’t host any January council meetings. Conversation — and rumors — have continued over the break.
“The Mayor and Town Council continues to support all Town employees including members of the Police Department,” the document concludes. “Town Council has followed responsible and legally sound procedures in conducting business for the Town, including that involving the PD. We will continue to work on improvements to provide an effective and efficient Police Department.”
The town council has scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 2 p.m. It will be a closed executive session regarding “strategy sessions, including those involving legal advice or opinion from an attorney-at-law, with respect to collective bargaining or pending or potential litigation, when an open meeting would have an adverse effect on the bargaining or litigation position of the public body,” followed by discussion and a possible vote in a public session.
After months of trying to find eligible Delaware officers to fill two vacancies in the South Bethany Police Department, permission was finally granted to widen the search pool to include a new recruit for the police academy.
Although the police department has been authorized to fill two of three vacancies in the past year, Crowson said he has only had a few qualified applicants who check all boxes, and only one was brought forward for town council review. That candidate was unanimously rejected.
In December, Crowson was allowed to expand the search to include qualified candidates to attend the March police academy, rather than only officers who had already graduated from the academy.
Initially, that wasn’t the preferred route, because a new hire needs six months at academy, plus three months on probation before he or she is ready to patrol alone. The municipality is paying for training, salary, uniform and supplies during that entire time.
If South Bethany sends someone to the academy, that recruit would have a two-year contract with the Town.
Academy applications are due by mid-February. So, South Bethany has to pick its top applicants; have them complete the written, drug and psychological tests; complete an interview process; and get a town council majority vote for the hire and academy expense.
“We’re actively searching — really fast-tracking it. We’re moving forward as quickly as possible,” Crowson said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s not without its challenges, with this amount of time.”
Delaware also requires out-of-state officers to attend the Delaware police academy, alongside new recruits. It is possible to fast-track the academics if they have certain certifications, but most will have to complete the full academy, Crowson said.
In addition to seeking new applicants, he said, he has reached out to some of those out-of-state certified officers who initially applied for the South Bethany job but might still have to enter academy, now that the council has given the go-ahead for an academy training period for its new officers.
By Laura Walter