BY ANDREW MARDER — At its May 5 meeting, the Hyattsville City Council voted by a margin of six to three to keep the number of funded sworn police officer positions at 40 for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
That is the same number approved during the last budget cycle, for the current fiscal year. The previous year’s budget, for fiscal 2013, had allowed for 43 positions. But only 40 of them were filled as the fiscal 2014 budget process began. Facing a daunting budget deficit, the council elected to freeze the three vacant positions: an investigator, a member of the Community Action Team and a K9 unit (and kennel).
Police Chief Douglas Holland had expected those positions to be restored in fiscal 2015, and included them in his proposed budget along with a fourth position, captain. The request for four additional staff would have brought the total number of sworn officers to 44, costing the city $376,000.
Holland, addressing the council before the vote, said it was misleading to label the motion as “maintaining” approved staffing levels.
“This is a reduction,” he said. “This is not a maintenance of approved positions.”
Right now, only 36 positions are filled. Holland said he expects that that the full 40 will be on board when the fiscal year ends on June 30.
The motion to remove funding for the extra positions from the 2015 budget was sponsored by Ward 1 councilmembers Candace Hollingsworth and Bart Lawrence, with Patrick Paschall (Ward 3), Edouard Haba (Ward 4) and Clayton Williams (Ward 5) voting for it. Mayor Marc Tartaro also supported the measure. Councilmember Joseph Solomon (Ward 5) abstained, saying afterwards that he felt he “didn’t have enough information to vote.”
Voting against it were councilmembers Paula Perry (Ward 4) and both Ward 2 representatives, Robert Croslin and Shani Warner. Councilmember Tim Hunt (Ward 3) was absent due to previously scheduled travel, but he had strongly opposed the measure when it was introduced at the April 30 meeting.
At that time, councilmembers Paula Perry (Ward 4) and Hunt argued that Hyattsville did have a crime problem and that an increase in the police force made sense. In the May 5 discussion, Perry cited shootings on her block and concerns from her constituents about safety saying, “Every time I’ve gone out and campaigned, the number one [concern residents had] was safety and police.”
Councilmember Robert Croslin (Ward 2) echoed that sentiment. He said, “Our residents pay taxes for two main reasons. The two things they find most important to them is police protection — safety in the city — and public works.”
When the motion was introduced, Lawrence said that the police department needed to do more to justify its requested budget increase for 2015, as it represented such a large portion of the overall budget. The police department’s total request was for $6.67 million, which amounted to 42 percent of the city’s total annual operating budget. He noted that from 2007 to 2013, crime in the city had fallen by 36 percent while calls for service had remained flat.
Over the course of the discussion, councilmembers related their own experiences with crime in Hyattsville and those of their constituents in support of or in opposition to the measure. At one point during a heated discussion about whether Hyattsville had a “crime problem” or not, Councilmember Williams — himself a victim of burglary — cautioned his colleagues about not allowing personal stories to carry too much weight.
“The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’,” said Williams.
The data does say that crime is down. Over the last year alone, according to the police department’s annual report, total reported crime fell 7 percent. The notable exception to the trend was commercial breaking and entering, which increased by 145 percent, from 11 incidents in 2012 to 27 in 2013.
There is concern in the business community that crime is still a problem. Henry Watford, general manager of the Mall at Prince Georges, spoke on behalf of the mall’s over 120 businesses. He supported an increase in police department staffing levels saying, “Safety is the number one issue when we approach retailers.” Any reduction in police, he warned, could delay response times, which Community Development director Jim Chandler said could have an impact on business investment in the area.
As Hollingsworth noted, part of the reasoning behind the increase in sworn officers was to grow the number of police patrol units from four to five. That would allow the department to cut back on overtime and provide additional coverage in the community when needed.
Asked whether the department would be able to staff five squads without the increase, Chief Holland replied that the department would be able, if it were fully staffed with 40 officers. But, he cautioned, squads would be have four or five officers, instead of the ideal six. Overtime costs could rise as officers would have to work longer hours.
After the vote, Lawrence told the HL&T, “I’m proud of the hard work and reasoned decision-making the mayor and council demonstrated. And I’m confident in Chief Holland’s ability to effectively manage the department with the approved resources.”