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NRPD to add officer

Detective Craig Yehlik (standing) of the New Richmond Police Department, addresses the City Council about the need to hire a 16th officer during the council’s July 21 meeting. (Photo by Micheal Foley)

The New Richmond City Council voted 5-1 on Monday, July 21, to authorize the New Richmond Police Department to hire a 16th officer to bring its force back up to the level it was in October 2010 when Sgt. Scott Turbeville died.

After nearly two hours of presentations and discussion, the council voted to approve the hire, with only District 5 Alderman Ron Volker dissenting.

Police Chief Mark Samelstad’s path to regaining the officer position wasn’t easy. In May 2011, after months of debate, the council then voted unanimously to remove funding for a third patrol sergeant position. In 2011, Volkert, a former deputy with the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office, said due to tight economic times it was a good idea to scale back. By eliminating one sergeant position, the city would save between $80,000 and $90,000 a year.

“That’s a lot of taxpayer dollars we can save,” he said at the time.

Department staffing was again a hot topic in August 2011 when the council voted 4-2 to defeat a proposal to enter into a contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services in the city.

The staffing presentations and discussion at Monday’s meeting would have been held behind closed doors if Samelstad had not requested that it be discussed in open session. The council was set to move into closed session to discuss unrelated personnel issues at the department when Samelstad asked City Attorney Ron Siler to determine whether there was any reason to hold the staffing level discussion in closed session.

Siler determined that the two items could be discussed separately -- one in closed session and the other in open session.

After returning to open session, the council heard from Samelstad, City Administrator Mike Darrow, Finance Director Nancy Petersen and four NRPD officers during a presentation and discussion that lasted nearly two hours.

Darrow began the presentation by saying he wished he had done more last year to communicate the department’s need for a 16th officer.
“I want to first say that there is money in our budget to hire a new officer,” Darrow said. “That determination is a policy decision, just like you’ve been doing since I’ve been here.”

Samelstad began his portion of the presentation by distributing graphs and charts from his 2013 annual report showing year-over-year increases in calls for service, overtime hours worked, extra shift expenses, actual overtime expenses, population growth in the city and organizational structures at comparably sized police departments.

Samelstad’s statistics showed the numbers of calls for service increasing each year from 5,275 in 2009 to 7,811 in 2013. He projected the number to break 8,100 this year and 8,300 next year.

Samelstad’s charts showing overtime hours worked and actual overtime expenses painted an even more dire picture. In 2013, the department budgeted for $65,000 in overtime expenses, but needed to pay more than $95,000. This year, $70,000 was budgeted for overtime costs, but he projected the actual cost would likely be more than $105,000.

Another number that has been growing each year is the city’s population. The city’s population in 2010 was 8,375, and in 2013 it was 8,533. Samelstad said he expects the figure to increase to more than 8,600 when official numbers are released next month, and to more than 8,700 in 2015. With the opening of the new St. Croix River Crossing in 2016, long-term projections show further increases.

To give the council members a better sense of impacts from the current staffing level, Samelstad asked a few officers to share information, narratives and personal stories.

Lt. Jerry Cody printed the logs for the previous five days to give the decision makers a sense of the sheer volume of work that is performed by the officers during a shift. Cody also shared information about how complex and time-consuming certain calls can be, including drunken driver arrests, which can take more than four hours for emergency detentions and mental health issues, which can take up an entire shift or longer.

“Page 2 shows what we do with emergency detentions; they’re absolutely horrendous,” Cody told the staff while referring to his handouts.

He said the officers are required to sit and wait with people while mental health evaluators can be reached. Sometimes the person is put on a safety plan with a loved one, but other times they need to be transported to a facility as far away as Oshkosh or Madison due to county agreements and bed availability.

Detective Craig Yehlik, who has served as a patrol officer and a patrol sergeant in the past, explained how officers often have to extend their shifts or come in on their days off to offer patrol coverage in the city while other officers are unavailable for a variety of reasons, including vacations, illnesses, court appearances, transports and more.

Yehlik said when the number of officers was at 16, the department had an opportunity to work more proactively by patrolling problem areas more frequently.

“Now, I feel that we’ve gone back to almost completely reactive now,” Yehlk said. “We don’t have the manpower to stay ahead of the drug game, especially.”

Yehlik also said that since the department has reduced from three patrol sergeants to two, that continuity has suffered because information that is normally easily passed along during a shift change is now often lost because the two sergeants are never on the clock at the same time.

“We didn’t see each other for months,” Yehlik said. “Once a month at a department supervisors’ meeting we’d see each other. I was working 9 to 5:30. Gayle would come in at 6:30. Unless I got extended or she came in early, there would be months that would go by without us seeing each other and being able to talk about things.”

Sgt. Gayle Freiseis echoed comments from Cody and Yehlik and put the staffing problem in even simpler terms.
“I get to tell you about the general well-being of your patrol officers,” Freiseis said. “They are really frustrated, they’re very worn out, and they’re tired.”

Freiseis also pointed out that a cop’s job is unlike that of most other city employees.

“We have to cover the shifts,” Freiseis said. “We can’t just not cover them. If the clerk’s office, library, parks department or streets department has somebody who gets sick, they don’t replace them. Work will get done tomorrow. We can’t do that. We have to replace those officers. It’s a safety issue. We have to have a minimum of two officers on just to take care of business for our safety, and for the public’s safety.”

Detective Veronica Koehler also chimed in by reading remarks she had prepared in advance. She said that the investigative caseload has increased and become more complex in recent years, which demands more of her time. As a result, some minor cases, such as thefts, are left to be investigated by patrol officers.

Darrow presented his own findings, which echoed many of the concerns spelled out by Samelstad and his officers. Darrow emphasized that health and safety issues were at the top of his priority list, as was planning for future growth.

According to budget figures presented by Petersen, the department’s 2014 budget already includes funding for a 16th officer starting in June. She indicated that hiring one now wouldn’t have a significant impact on the city’s finances.

“Just projecting out to 2015, with the additional officer, there is not much of a difference,” Petersen said.

Mayor Fred Horne asked about going back to the practice of hiring part-time officers, but was rebuffed when Samelstad pointed out the costs of training and outfitting the officer wasn’t worth the cost. Freiseis also said that it’s difficult to trust part-time officers to make life-and-death judgement calls if they had only seen patrol action once every few months.

Horne also questioned the status of a grant application to hire a school liaison officer, and Samelstad said the grant application was never submitted because the school district indicated it would not be able to put up its share of the officer’s cost.

District 3 Alderperson Bobbie Dale-Wozniak finally put forth a motion to approve the hire.

“What are we doing here tonight with this presentation? Are we here to decide whether to hire another officer or not? Well, I’ve just heard everyone from the police department say they need it. I’ve just heard the city administrator say that he thinks we need an officer. I’ve just heard Nancy say that it has a negligible financial impact. I move we hire another officer,” Dale-Wozniak said.

District 6 Alderman Jim Zajkowski seconded the motion, and discussion began with Volkert saying he didn’t think hiring just one officer would make much of a difference and that the city had multiple other public safety concerns to address in addition to the police staffing issue.

“It sounds like we have a great bunch of guys working at the police department. It sounds like they complain a lot, though,” Volkert said.

District 1 Alderman Craig Kittel countered that he thought the council would be doing a disservice to residents if it didn’t hire another officer. He added that it doesn’t make much sense to spend that much money on overtime.

After the meeting, Samelstad told The News that the approval to hire the officer was “long overdue.”

“Expense-wise, I’m hoping to see the overtime costs go down, but we won’t know that until the end of 2015,” Samelstad said.

Samelstad indicated that the department is toward the end of the hiring process with multiple candidates identified and having background checks completed. He hoped a hire could be made this fall, allowing the new officer to complete the 16-week probationary training period and hitting the streets full time early next year.

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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