Berlin Police Chief Concerned Over Officer Shortage

BERLIN — Police Chief Arnold Downing warned the Mayor and Council Monday that the number of active Berlin Police Department (BPD) officers could drop into the single digits.

“We don’t want it to get to that point,” said Downing.

The chief added that because of the disparity in pay and benefits between Berlin and surrounding areas, this was an issue the town might have to worry about for a long time.

According to Downing, one officer has recently resigned, another has submitted a letter of resignation and two more are considering potential offers from other departments. He asserted that if all four of those mentioned left, the number of officers would drop down to nine. The BPD had 15 officers back in fiscal year 2010.

“I don’t think we can wait until budget time,” said Downing.

Downing told the council that steps needed to be taken as soon as possible to either start a new recruit in the academy, find an experienced officer looking to transfer to Berlin or to persuade some of his officers to stay.

“We need to go ahead and advertise,” said Downing.

While Downing asserted that he would like to keep the officers he has now, he made it clear that he wasn’t sure if it would be possible, considering the proposals they were getting from other police departments.

BPD starts officers at around $30,000 per year. Ocean Pines comes in next lowest at $36,000 with several other departments in the area offering $41,000 as a starting salary. Additionally, Downing said that Berlin has difficulty competing with the benefits and sign-up bonuses offered by places like the Wicomico Sheriff’s Office and Pocomoke Police Department.

“The floor hasn’t moved,” said Downing, explaining that, while BPD’s starting pay hadn’t increased in years, other local police departments had.

Downing also worried that once officers began to leave it would become harder and harder to convince any to stay.

 “They [other police departments] know it’s easy pickings here because of the salary,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall.

Human Resources Director Jeff Fleetwood congratulated Downing on his passion for public safety. He did point out, however, that while one BPD officer has recently left for a job that pays more money, it was not with another police department.

Mayor Gee Williams explained that he shared Downing’s worries, but he reminded him that the town would be generating a budget in the coming weeks and that the BPD was like any other department. If there was a need for personnel, Downing would have to prove that need.

“We don’t automatically fill the slots,” said Town Administrator Tony Carson.

Downing argued that there were significant differences between the BPD and other town agencies, especially in regards to filling vacancies. He pointed out that it takes months to train a recruit at the police academy and several more months on top of that before they’re generally considered solid officers.

While Downing was quick to admit that hiring a seasoned officer would be a much faster solution than putting a cadet through the academy, he was pessimistic about Berlin’s ability to attract officers, given the disparity in pay.

Williams said Downing would need to follow the town’s standard operating procedure, especially since three of the four officers mentioned haven’t actually left yet.

“We’re going to address this issue,” promised Williams.