Police Retention, Staffing Concerns Highlight Berlin Meeting

Police Retention, Staffing Concerns Highlight Berlin Meeting
Christina Bireley, wife of a Berlin Police Dept. officer, talks about the need for increased staffing at the department. Photo by Steve Green

BERLIN– An emotional plea from the municipality’s police chief highlighted law enforcement staffing concerns voiced during a council meeting this week.

Several members of the public, including two former Berlin Police Department (BPD) officers and the spouse of a current BPD officer, asked elected officials to increase police retention efforts in town. Police Chief Arnold Downing echoed their concerns.

“No one has ever retired from this agency,” he said. “Think about it. It’s ridiculous.”

At this week’s meeting, Councilman Jack Orris suggested dedicating funding that Mayor Zack Tyndall had proposed for a roundabout on Flower Street to police retention efforts instead. When Tyndall pointed out that those funds were impact fees—which are meant to be used for infrastructure—Orris said maybe the town could use $100,000 from its reserve fund to the department to aid in police retention efforts.

Tyndall said there was money in the budget already that would help with police retention and that he didn’t have any information on Orris’s proposal.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it,” Tyndall said.

He added that there was a pathway for requests to be made.

“The chief is fully capable of making those requests,” he said.

Orris said he just wanted to discuss the idea of boosting police funding with his peers.

“We’re responsible for the safety of everybody here,” he said. “Not that people are unsafe but it’s getting into a situation that’s getting concerning.”

Councilman Dean Burrell said there was no reason officials couldn’t look into the proposal and discuss it at a later date.

When Tyndall opened the floor for public comments, Berlin resident JB Bunting said he was speaking to urge officials to address the situation at the Berlin Police Department. He said he’d been in law enforcement 15 years and had gotten his start in Berlin but couldn’t afford to stay with the department.

“The only reason I can afford to live in Berlin now is because I don’t work for the Town of Berlin anymore,” he said.

He said working for the BPD was a job many officers would love to have if the pay was competitive.

“People should be knocking down the door to be working here,” he said, adding that doing foot patrols in Berlin was like something you’d see in a movie.

Bunting said the town desperately needed LEOPS (Law Enforcement Officers Pension System), which officials are now pursuing, and it needed to increase police pay.

“We could do better as a town for our cops,” he said.

Staff noted that while the LEOPS study was underway, the soonest the town would be able to enter the program was July 1, 2023.

Berlin resident Michael Hickman, another former BPD officer, echoed Bunting’s comments. He said turnover at the agency was high because Berlin was often considered a stepping stone to larger agencies.

“I’d like to see that change,” he said. “A lot of money goes into training, the academy, everything costs money. I had to pay back the town (when I left) and I gladly did it because I got a $15,000 raise to leave the town and go to the agency I ended up retiring from.”

He said that while the town had increased police pay not too long ago, BPD was still not competitive. He said staffing was not where it needed to be now and even if rates were increased it would still take time to get officers on patrol.

“Every time you put someone in the academy you’re eight months away from having a viable officer performing patrol function on the street,” he said. “Six months in the academy, two months of field training… In my opinion this is a critical issue.”

The 2021 death of Delmar Cpl. Keith Heacook and last month’s shooting death of Wicomico County Deputy Glenn Hilliard have reminded many of the dangers officers face in the line of duty.

“We aren’t that much different than Delmar,” Hickman said. “You have to think about that. What happened in Delmar could very easily have happened here in Berlin.”

Christina Bireley, wife of a current BPD officer, said she was worried about her husband’s safety when he was on duty.

“He and other officers are forced to work alone at night due to the staffing shortage,” she said.

She said there were more officers on staff at the department 25 years ago than there are today.

“With the recent and devastating events that have happened in Delmar and Wicomico County as a wife I feel obligated to speak up,” she said. “I could not live with the guilt knowing I didn’t try to improve the situation.”

Downing said she’d nearly brought him to tears.

“If we want to do something we have to make it a priority,” he said.

Downing said if the town wanted to do something to improve the situation money would have to be spent.

“When somebody wants to complain that we’re too slow and we’re not there when they want us to be there, there’s a reason,” he said.

Downing said he’d been with the agency 31 years. While he’s always sorry to see people leave BPD, he knows they’re leaving as better officers than when they arrived. He said if the town wanted to keep those officers police funding would have to be a priority. He said the talk of LEOPS had gone on for years.

“I’ve been at the doorstep more than once,” he said. “I’ve heard it before. We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Downing added that the town could’ve had LEOPS in place this year if officials had acted earlier. He said he’d heard support voiced for moving into the program but knew officials’ votes could change once the cost was laid out.

Nevertheless he stressed the importance of the town’s law enforcement.

“You’re not going to have good schools, you’re not going to have a good business community, you’re not going to have anybody want to be here or live here if they don’t feel safe,” he said.

He added that houses in Berlin were selling fast and there was a waiting list for commercial space. He said businesses wouldn’t be leaving because of a slight increase in costs from the town. He closed his comments by encouraging officials to institute LEOPS and increase pay for police.

“Folks are going to come here because of the dollars, they stay because of retirement,” he said. “You have to fix both those things. You can’t do one and not the other.”

Tyndall thanked those who commented for speaking.

“We have some things to overcome,” he said. “We’re aware of those, we’re working through some of those…. None of us want to see anything bad happen to any of our officers.”

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.