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Cops on trial

Brockport loves (and hates) its police department

by and

Not much has changed in 175 years for Brockport --- a picturesque Victorian village on the banks of the Erie Canal.

            In 1829, Brockport gave itself a police department by writing two constable positions into the village charter. The village dumped the constables a few years later. The positions were restored around 1852, according to former village historian Bill Andrews.

            "So I suspect that this has been going on since the beginning," he says. "That the village has always had an off and on, difficult relationship with the police department."

            Abolishing or somehow altering the police department is an idea that floats to the surface every few years in Brockport --- as dependable as the seasonal draining and re-filling of the canal.

            No one's quite sure why. The idea could be tied to the village's financial fortunes, Mayor Josephine Matela says. When taxes go up, the Brockport Police Department, she says, is an easy target.

            "It is an expensive service we provide," says village Trustee Norm Knapp. (The BPD makes up about 23 percent of Brockport's overall budget.) "A number of times the public has asked the question, 'Do we need the police department when we have the sheriff's office in the county?'"

            Others tie it to something more sinister. The thing to remember about Brockport is that it has a unique way of holding on to its citizens and never letting go. Many people are born or move there early on, live out their lives, and die in the two-square-miles that make up the Village Proper. Knapp is a lifer. Andrews has been there since 1970. Matela is a 38-year resident. That's a lot of time for lives to intersect. Grudges form, fester, and linger well after the reason for the resentment is forgotten.

            "I love it here. All three of my children were born in the village," says Trustee Pete DeToy. "[But] there's too many personal agendas, vendettas there [on the village board]. It needs a whole new board; people in there that can see the forest and don't let the trees get in the way."

            DeToy's son, Michael, has been a Brockport police officer for 11 years.

            The latest is that Trustee Mort Wexler --- with the apparent backing of Knapp and Trustee James Whipple --- has been exploring the idea of eliminating one of the police department's three shifts. He has asked the village treasurer for a report detailing potential cost savings if the idea is implemented.

            "I am not looking to eliminate anyone's job," Wexler says. "I am looking to control the cost of the police department. I pay taxes in this community, too."

Wexler has long been a proponent of reigning in costs associated with the police department. In particular he has focused on police overtime --- long a sore spot in the village.

            The BPD regularly exceeds its overtime budget by a significant sum. Historically, according to treasurer Ian Coyle, the village spends anywhere from $175,000 to $200,000 annually in overtime pay for police.

            The problem has been the police union's contract, which includes a minimum staffing requirement of two officers for each shift. Until recently, both had to be full-time officers.

            "I don't think the implications of that were fully realized, the budgetary implications," Andrews says. "It became a lot more expensive and that's caused an additional strain."

            When an officer was out for sickness, injury, or another reason, whoever replaced him automatically received overtime. And the offer of additional hours is always extended to the most senior officers --- who earn the most money --- first.

            "We had two police officers out on the morning shift who had surgery," Wexler says, citing a recent example. "They were out eight, nine months. Everyone who replaced those people was making time-and-a-half. It cost us a lot of money."

            During recent contract negotiations, the union agreed to allow part-time officers to cover shifts three days a week if a full-time officer is out for any reason.

            "Would we have liked seven [days a week]? Absolutely," Wexler says. "But it's a compromise and maybe next time [we'll] get more."

            But Matela and Police Chief Dan Varrenti think the village got a raw deal. The union, they say, should have conceded more on the minimum staffing issue.

            "The contract has not gone far enough," Matela says. "I'm disappointed with the outcome."

            There's a reason the union won't give up minimum staffing, DeToy says.

            "I don't know any of the policemen that trust the village board," he says. "Everything that goes wrong, they blame the police department for it and the politicians seem to want to run the police department as their own private little club."

            "Whipple was on the board when they laid off three or four policemen in the early '90s and he wants to do it again. He's got a vendetta against the police department."

            Whipple didn't return calls for comment.

Varrenti came on board two years ago, and since that time he has promoted hiring as a way to control costs. The village board did allow him to hire a single full-time officer in 2002 and that has resulted in big savings, Varrenti says, on the afternoon shift. Overtime totaled $2,000 on that shift over one six-month period, he says, compared to $40,000 in overtime on each of the other two shifts.

            But a majority of the village board has consistently refused Varrenti's request to hire additional officers.

            "When you don't do things for the right reasons, it's very hard to justify the decisions you make," he says. "In my opinion, there are self-serving issues that are overriding the right decisions. This is not about what's best for the community, but about what people want."

            The new police union contract isn't going to make much difference, Varrenti says. The BPD has three part-time officers and one is due to leave soon. The department would have to have eight part-timers, Varrenti says, in order to ensure that a part-timer would be available to cover the shifts now allowed in the new contract. Once you hire, train, and equip those part-timers, it ends up being an expense, he says, not a savings, to the village.

            The police department is a bargain, Varrenti says, when you consider that it operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Other village departments, he says, don't operate nearly that often and eat up only slightly less of the village's budget.

            "I'm pretty sick and tired of the police department being the excuse for everybody's failure. People ought to start standing up and praising them," he says. "Every year it's the same thing. Every year it's a broken record."

            The village needs to either start valuing the BPD or go ahead and get rid of it, Varrenti says.

            "And if you get rid of them, then be prepared to suffer the consequences."

Knapp doesn't believe hiring will eliminate the overtime problem. Officers earn lots of vacation, he says, and there's always training, sickness, and injury to contend with.

            Wexler, bottom line, doesn't believe the village needs any more police officers.

            "I am not hiring any additional police officers. I think there is a sufficient number of police officers presently employed to maintain the safety and well-being of this community," he says. "We're more like Mayberry than we are the Wild, Wild West."

            It's nothing personal, say Knapp and Wexler, it's about the money. The village declared a financial crisis in 2002. The proposed tax increase in next year's budget is 9.8 percent. And that's down from the original number, Wexler says, which was "extremely high. Big-time double digits."

            When you're looking to cut costs, he says, you look to the biggest areas of your budget. In Brockport, those are the police and the Department of Public Works. And the DPW, Wexler says, is understaffed.

            Everything costs money, argues DeToy, and Brockport's proposed tax increase is peanuts compared to municipalities like the village of Webster, which is proposing a tax increase in excess of 70 percent.

            "In today's world, with the cost of fuel and insurance and everything going up, [9.8 percent] is not bad at all," he says. "Yeah, I'd like to see taxes go down. I'd like to see them go away. But it's not going to happen."

            "It's just greed," he adds. "People don't want to pay taxes. They want everything for nothing. That's discouraging."

            DeToy has harsh words for his fellow trustees. Ideas like eliminating a police shift, he says, are mean-spirited and show what little knowledge the board majority has of what the BPD does for the community.

            "These people aren't living in the real world. There's certain members of the board that aren't happy unless they're stirring the pot. There's certain members of the board that have contributed nothing to this board, to this village..." he says. "They haven't had an original thought about anything. They just sit back and wait for things to drift by them. That's another reason why I don't want to be involved anymore."

            DeToy is stepping down from the board when his "sentence" is up in May, he says.

            "We just represent the people. We're not the people," he says. "These clowns on the board forget that. The people that I know, that I talk to at church, down at the legion post, at the fire department... they like the police department. They know how important they are."

Of course, you can't talk about Brockport without mentioning the college. When SUNY Brockport is in session, it essentially doubles the village's population. And, Andrews says, kids will be kids.

            "[College kids] are friskier than the old geezers in town like me," he says. "So they need a little more attention from police. There's not too many septuagenarians who get arrested for urinating in public."

            The BPD reported 202 instances of criminal mischief in 2003. There were also 59 reports of noise-ordinance violations, 86 reports of disorderly conduct, and 172 cases of petit larceny. It is unclear how many of these reports are attributable to SUNY Brockport students.

            "Anyone who says crime doesn't exist in Brockport is just stupid," Varrenti says. "How do you double your population and not expect that to have an impact on calls for service and [on] law enforcement? Clearly, if we didn't have the college in this village, circumstances would be much different. It makes the local police department a necessity, not a luxury."

            Mayor Matela agrees.

            "Just having the university there does create problems," she says. "It's our obligation to protect them [the students], even if it's from themselves."

            But Wexler thinks campus police could play more of a role in dealing with village crime. The entire responsibility, he says, needn't rest with the BPD.

            "When there was a robbery at the bank about a year-and-a-half ago, the second car on the scene was the college police department," he says. "They have to be asked [by the BPD]. And that, in itself, is an interesting thing: Are they asked?"

            Sharon Kehoe used to head up a citizens' group in Brockport. Much of the group's focus was on whether Brockport needed its own police force. The group isn't active because Kehoe has had health problems, but the sentiment, Kehoe says, is still there.

            "The people that are talking to me think we don't need the police department," she says, adding that the village wouldn't be any less safe if law enforcement was left to the sheriff's office.

            "Most of the county uses the sheriff. We just feel like we're being taxed twice --- for [the BPD] and for the sheriff," she says. "The campus has its own police department. They come out. They cooperate with the Brockport police. They'd cooperate with the sheriff if they were the ones doing the coverage."

            The department, Kehoe says, is just too expensive.

            Much of the resentment toward the police also stems from the fact that not a single officer --- including Varrenti --- lives in the village.

            Kehoe's group is looking to become active again.

            "I think we're going to do something, but I'm not sure what," she says.

The village couldn't eliminate a police shift even if it wanted to, say Matela and Varrenti, because it goes against the police union's contract. The contract doesn't say the village can't eliminate a shift, but it does say the BPD will consist of three shifts.

            "You will be right back into litigation [with the union]," Varrenti told Wexler at a recent budget workshop.

            The shift cut is "a dead issue," Matela said at the same meeting, and urged the board to reconsider hiring a full-time and two part-time officers. But Wexler accused the chief of stubbornly refusing to try any other method of controlling costs except hiring.

            "The horse is dead, so stop kicking it," he said. "The amount of options you're giving this board is less and less."

            Wexler will check his legal options, he says, to see if cutting a shift truly does go against the union contract.

            "I don't think it's dead," he says. "I don't think anything is dead."

            Matela is saying that the money to do the hiring can come out of the overtime budget and won't affect the tax rate, Wexler says. But his argument is that he doesn't want to spend the money at all --- in overtime or hiring.

            "I would hope, to be honest, we could get this thing resolved without eliminating people, but I don't know," he says. "If those numbers come down on the budget, then I would be more than happy to keep the present three shifts. If it doesn't come down, I have to take a look on where we, the board, can save money for the taxpayers."

            Wexler is approached on the police issue, he says, more often than any other topic in the village. Many people, he says, support eliminating a shift.

            The trustees should be working together, DeToy says, to make Brockport a desirable place to live and work --- where people feel safe.

            "They [the village board] just do the opposite. They're running it like a fruit stand," he says. "No progressive thinking. If we were in the Army, we'd have to retreat. If we were a business, we'd be bankrupt."

            "Anything good costs money," he adds. "You get what you pay for. If you get it for nothing, you're really getting nothing."