South Bethany will try a little of everything to keep the town secure this year, including, frankly, a little outsourcing.
After March 16, the police department will have one chief, one officer and four vacancies, after two more police officers leave the South Bethany Police Department to take jobs elsewhere.
“Over the past week, the town manager and I have been focused on all possible avenues to assure we have coverage due to these departures,” said Mayor Tim Saxton on March 8. “We are in the process of contacting local municipalities and the state police to discuss ways of providing possible assistance during that timeframe when we are bringing a full complement of staff back to the department. Security services will also be engaged to provide non-police safety functions.”
Saxton emphasized that the town council’s goal to keep an in-house police department, as even he has been concerned about traffic safety and vehicles speeding on Route 1, he said.
“Our focus is to build a multi-functional approach in providing citizens safety at all times until our in-house police department is back to full staff. Local agencies and state police have assured us they will respond to calls on urgent matters as needed in South Bethany, as per the existing mutual assistance,” an agreement in which police agencies agree to respond to each other’s emergencies when needed.
“We continue to advertise for certified officers,” and got another application this week, he said. “We believe the new pay scale and rank will attract officers, and we will work diligently toward all the issues that I raised in this statement.”
The draft 2020-fiscal-year budget also signals the town council’s intention to keep an in-house police force.
“It has a full complement of what’s needed to run the police department,” Saxton said. “This is a plan to keep the police department as it is. Let’s stick with the facts. We didn’t reduce the budget. It even factors in the new pay scale.”
The draft budget includes salary, benefits, pension, health and life insurance for the six fulltime police, plus seasonal enforcement, office staff and so forth. (Any excess money returns to the reserve fund, such as this year’s unused police salaries and higher-than-anticipated rental tax income. The town council can use reserves for long-term projects or for unexpected expenses, such as the 2019 legal fees that roughly doubled their original $25,000 legal budget.)
They also intend to keep the Cat Hill barricade enforced this year, Saxton said.
Public upset about lost coverage
But there are lingering public concerns.
“I think the town leadership has finally achieved what has been a long-sought goal, which is eventually de-populating the police department … for motives that have never been made public,” said resident Dan Cowell.
The town council has never publicly discussed any intention to dismantle the police department. But Cowell and others have alleged that delayed recruitment, staff demoralization and friction with the police chief have weakened the department from within.
“Last spring, I urged council to consider the potential damage demoralization was causing for members of the police department … but I did not foresee that this situation would eventually lead to the messy exodus of officers and the community divisiveness that would ensue as a result of the Town’s actions and lack of transparency about what it was doing and why it was doing it,” said Cowell, also questioning how an incomplete police department will affect insurance rates.
The town council had waited until November 2018 to even announce that they had, during the previous summer, assigned the town manager to begin drafting a new rank structure. In the vacuum, rumors and accusations had intensified over the last year, until the council approved a new rank and pay scale in February.
“I think you have the word of every council member here. We voted it into the budget,” Saxton said of the 2020 draft budget.
After years of 24/7 South Bethany police coverage, Brenda Hossick said she was furious that she had to wait for a Fenwick Island officer to respond to an emergency involving strangers on her property. Until police arrived, she said, the 911 operator asked if Hossick had a gun in the house.
“It’s very horrible to be woken up at 4 in the morning and be scared to death, and we have had a home here for 33 years. … God forbid it happens to you,” Hossick scolded council members. “And you all better get some cops here. … I’m holding you accountable.”
Farewell to the officers
Friday, March 16, is the last work day for Sgt. Alfred “Lee” Davis and PFC Nate Hudson. The mayor and Police Chief Troy Crowson thanked them for their service and wished them luck.
Davis is retiring from the department and will become a constable at Delaware Technical Community College.
“Davis exceeded the expectations of the South Bethany Police Department. He has been a dedicated officer and consistently proved his commitment to the community, … a positive role model,” according to Crowson.
Hudson has accepted a position with the Fenwick Island Police Department.
“PFC Hudson’s work ethic, professionalism and competency has been exemplary during his four-plus years with our department,” Crowson continued.
Some people even suggested the Town ask the two departing officers to stay.
“Personally, I feel like part of the heart of the community has been ripped out of us,” said resident Dennis Roberts, thanking Davis for 28 years of service. “[In] a small town, it’s really nice that you know the officers … just the camaraderie we had with the force.”
The police chief did internal exit interviews. After the town manager completes more exit interviews, Saxton said the council will review that information, too.
In 2017, all six SBPD officers, except the chief, had signed a demand letter to the Town, alleging they had not been paid or promoted as they should be. Around the same time, two consulting firms were studying improvements to police policies, procedures and pay.
In 2018, the town council adopted a relatively barebones rank structure, but no new pay scale. Officers still left in February, May and September. Two more resigned in 2019, after the town council approved a broader rank and pay scale in February.
The town council had decided not to fill one position, reducing the number of staff to five officers.
As is the case nationwide, people are always encouraged to dial 911 for emergencies. The SBPD number for non-emergencies is (302) 539-3996. If an officer is on duty and available, the call will be answered. Otherwise, the public can call Sussex County’s non-emergency line at (302) 855-2980, and SUSCOM will dispatch a nearby agency, such as Delaware State, Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island or Ocean View police. (They’ll also contact the police chief, if necessary.)
Seeking applicants for summer and fulltime
South Bethany continues to advertise for fulltime and seasonal police. They have already hired three people who need additional training. Two recruits will begin six months of Delaware Police Academy training on March 17, followed by three months of field training. Another officer is coming from out-of-state, so he also needs field training, plus additional Delaware certifications, which SBPD will expedite where possible.
Meanwhile, South Bethany typically hires summer staff. The SBPD is currently seeking a part-time certified officer, plus two seasonal enforcement officers who don’t necessarily have arrest powers but have thorough training and enforce the Cat Hill barricade, write parking tickets or respond to noise complaints.
Town Manager Maureen Hartman and Councilman Gerald “Jerry” Masiello were asked to work with Crowson on writing new standard operating procedures (SOPs).
“We continue to work hard at trying to attract certified officers,” Saxton said. “We really need to make sure the message is out there that we have a new rank scale, a new pay scale, that’s extremely competitive.”
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
The town council also paused the March 8 council meeting for an hour-long executive session, during which they discussed time-sensitive documents that were received within the previous week, but are “excluded from the definition of ‘public record.’”
The council’s decision to “proceed with actions discussed in executive session” was unanimous, although Council Members Jimmy Oliver and Carol Stevenson were absent.
Cowell had referenced the Delaware Attorney General’s Feb. 25 opinion that the town council had some minor issues with advertising its executive sessions.
“The AG got involved, and that’s never a good thing for a small town to have a state official looking at how they’re conducting business,” Cowell said.
By Laura Walter