OCEAN CITY – Less could end up meaning more to the Ocean City Police Department in regards to the number of seasonal officers hired this year.
Though a final decision will have to be made by state legislators if the town of Ocean City can lower the minimum number of seasonal police officers from 100 to 70, the merits of that conversation appear to be beneficial to the overall efficiency of the department during its busiest season. After a long discussion, the council voted 5-0 (with Margaret Pillas abstaining and Joe Hall absent) to send a letter requesting a change in the minimum amount of seasonal officers hired for the summer.
“The seasonal officer program has been very successful and served a very viable purpose for the town of Ocean City and should be continued without any question in my mind,” said Mayor Rick Meehan, “but, when this was drafted, the number of full-time officers that we had was far less than the number that we have today, so we think this is a fair request in these budgetary sensitive times and we think the state legislators will understand that.”
Any change in the language of the legislation would simply lower the minimum number of officers that Ocean City must hire for the seasonal program from 100-70, and Meehan said that if the town found that it needed more help, that more officers could be hired.
“We have 59 returning seasonal officers from last year, and that number is significant,” said Meehan. “That’s really a benefit because those officers with just a short bit of retraining can go right back out into the streets and the system. If we can do that and cut back on the training and the time that officers have to spend training seasonal officers, we should be able to cut back on the total number of (seasonal) officers.”
The hope in this case is to put a dent in the large amounts of overtime pay that the police department in the month of June, which last year was upwards of $400,000. It has been argued that much of that cost is accrued by full time officers either training the seasonal officers or filling in the gaps until the second graduating class of seasonal cadets complete their training in mid June.
Meehan said that if the minimum number is reduced to 70, the two graduating classes could be trimmed to one, which would save a significant amount of money and overtime hours worked by the full time officers.
Chief Bernadette DiPino, on the other hand, was a bit more apprehensive about the change, starting with the number 70 itself.
“I feel like 70 is kind of an arbitrary number, and I don’t think I can argue how we came up with 70 as the right number in this case when I go before the Maryland State Police Training Commission,” she said.
The Training Commission sets the standards for sworn in officers, including the usual mandated six- month police academy training. Ocean City’s seasonal police force is an exception to that rule, and as long as the town hires 100 seasonal officers, the six-month police academy rule is waived and amended training standards are set. DiPino feared that any change to the legislation could jeopardize that exception, putting the program at risk.
“If you send this letter forward, there is a potential that the Maryland Training Commission, which I sit on, may come back and say that they won’t allow any seasonal officers to be hired to have police authority unless they meet the minimum standards, which would mean that we would have to send all seasonal officers through a full police academy,” she said.
DiPino said that if the department hired less than 100 without a change in the legislation it would be in violation of the law thus making all arrests made by the seasonal employees illegal, but she stressed that she was only trying to advise the council of what could happen before a final decision.
“Times change, and as you move forward times change and requirements change, I think this is reasonable,” said Meehan. “I think that the fact that you sit on the Maryland Training Commission, you can articulately explain why we need the seasonal officers but why times have changed a bit.”
Meehan went on to dispel DiPino’s fears that a change could jeopardize the entire program, saying, “I think the worst case scenario is that they would say no. I certainly don’t think they would say no and dissolve the whole program, that doesn’t seem rational.”
Councilman Doug Cymek revealed a glaring miscommunication in the interior ranks of the department as he questioned DiPino why a memo was sent to the council bearing her signature that seemingly supported the move from 100 to 70, and why she was arguing against the claim.
“I was not aware of that memo,” said DiPino. “I was on vacation last week.”
After a discussion that seemed to infuriate Cymek to a level unseen in his time on the council, Captain Kevin Kirstein, who served as acting chief while DiPino was on holiday, admitted to signing the memo using DiPino’s digital signature because he was told “it was on my plate of things I needed to do last week.”
Cymek told the chief that if his signature were to be placed on any document, he’d be sure to know about it.
“If you aren’t aware of this memo, chief, then I really have a problem,” said Cymek, “I really take exception when we get these things and it has your signature and we take it for granted and it’s not the case.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said that if the council wanted to lower the number for this summer, a decision would have to be made soon as the allotted time in which to submit legislation to the General Assembly is coming to a close.
“Seventy is just a low threshold number, “said Ayres, “Obviously, the department is going to hire the amount that they need to keep the town safe.”
Councilman Jim Hall politely scolded DiPino for the memo mishap, but remained confident in her abilities to complete the task at hand.
“I not crazy about how all this went down, but I think it was just a miscommunication, said Hall, “but I do know this chief will get it done no matter what the number.”