Amid Shortage, Berlin Police Chief Assures ‘Be Certain Our Community Is Safe’

Amid Shortage, Berlin Police Chief Assures ‘Be Certain Our Community Is Safe’
Police Chief Arnold Downing, center, is pictured with members of his police department outside their headquarters. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – Efforts to hire additional police officers continue in Berlin.

As residents voice concerns about the town’s lack of police staffing, Chief Arnold Downing stressed that while the department size wasn’t optimum, it was capable of ensuring the safety of the town.

“Be certain our community is safe,” he said. “We have a veteran force. We know the people and know how to do the job. I’m really confident with the staff we have.”

The Berlin Police Department is a 14-member agency. Currently, there are two officers out on medical leave and two vacancies that need to be filled. Downing said the current staff level wasn’t ideal but was workable.

“We try to be a proactive agency,” he said. “That’s our success. When you go down to certain levels it becomes difficult.”

The dynamics of Berlin’s population play a big role in the duties of the department. While it’s busy during the week, as the town’s size increases by thousands when multiple schools are filled with children and doctors’ offices are open, the weekends can be slower for law enforcement. Another challenge facing the department is the town’s growing number of full-time residents.

“All we have to say is Oceans East,” Downing said.

He said as soon as the new building at the complex on Seahawk Road got its certificate of occupancy residents were moving in, as they had waiting lists and applications on file.  Other infill development within the town has also added to its population.

The reason population has such an impact on the police department is because many of the calls officers respond to aren’t criminal — they’re service calls for things like checking on an elderly neighbor’s welfare or addressing parking issues.

“There’s definitely an increased volume of calls for service,” he said.

While Downing is hopeful he’ll one day have a full staff again, he acknowledged that wasn’t really enough to put the department at the level he’d like to see it. He can’t have a supervisor on duty every shift or two officers on duty 24/7.

“Those things can’t be achieved with 14 officers,” he said.

Right now, however, the department is still struggling to get to 14. While the agency used to get 50 applications when there was an opening, these days it gets about a dozen. About half of them will prove to be viable candidates.

Downing pointed out that when the department does send a new hire to the academy, it takes six months there and several months more with his staff before the individual is a fully functional officer. Nevertheless, he’s optimistic about the town’s current prospects.

“We’re going through the process of hiring,” he said, adding that he hoped to see the agency get back up to a full staff soon.

There’s always the chance though that whoever the town hires will be lured away to a position elsewhere. Law enforcement agencies all over are offering sign-on bonuses and added benefits to attract officers. Berlin’s pay and retirement are both less appealing than what’s offered elsewhere, according to Downing.

Mayor Zack Tyndall, however, says Berlin’s pay is competitive and that law enforcement agencies everywhere are struggling to find officers.

“This is across the board,” he said. “It’s not just the Town of Berlin.”

While he believes the department’s pay is competitive with what is offered elsewhere, Tyndall acknowledged that offering LEOPS (Law Enforcement Officers’ Pension System) could help attract officers. The town is planning to fund a LEOPS study in the coming fiscal year.

Councilman Jack Orris, an early proponent of bringing LEOPS to Berlin, agreed that it would help.

“I’m sure everyone realizes that staffing for law enforcement is down nationwide,” he said. “It seems Berlin has always been a step behind our sister municipalities in terms of pay and benefits like LEOPS. As we get near the new fiscal year, I’m pleased that we will be funding a LEOPS study and also see where we can improve on our police pay to be more in line with the local market for that occupation.”

Another step Downing is pleased to see the town taking is a move toward a step and grade system for all town employees. Knowing that they can expect a modest cost-of-living adjustment or step increase on a regular basis would go a long way for employees.

“You know what you’re going to get paid,” Downing said.

As for now, Tyndall echoed Downing’s confidence in Berlin’s police force. He said concerns regarding the level of coverage in Berlin were unfounded.

“We have a good police department with a lot of skilled officers,” he said. “The idea that the town is not being covered is not factual.”

He added that partner law enforcement agencies such as Maryland State Police were always willing to provide support when needed. Downing agreed that support from neighboring agencies, particularly during the town’s special events, was much appreciated.

“These partnerships go a long way,” he said, adding that his agency also benefitted from community support. “The fact that we have help from the community is a big plus. We have buy in and support and we support the community also.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.