Havre Daily News
Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said today the city has asked him not to fill a vacancy in his department for the coming budget year, a request that has left him concerned about the safety of his officers and the community.
Changes in how the Hill County Sheriff's Office handles booking and arraignments for city defendants also have added strain to his work force, he said.
The Havre City Council is set to vote on the budget tonight.
Barthel said an officer was not cut from his budget, but he was asked not to fill a vacancy for the next year in order to save money. He would not identify the city official who made the request.
A year ago, the department had 19 officers on its roster. It now has 18, after Mike Labaty left for a higher-paying position with a federal agency, Barthel said. The request to leave the position unfilled is giving him heartburn," he said, because he has a work force that has been given little or no time off over the summer because of the shortage in staffing.
Recently, one of the department's officers worked nine straight days without time off.
"I'm concerned about fatigue," Barthel said. "I'm concerned about officer safety. I'm bringing in officers to cover shifts. I have people on sick leave. I'm worried about the personnel, and I'm worried about the level of service provided to the community. It's a big concern for me."
He said he raised his concerns with Rice during their budget discussions. He declined to comment on Rice's responses. Rice could not be reached for comment today.
Barthel said the department receives an average of 60 calls for service over a 24-hour period. He has checked with other police agencies, such as the Billings Police Department, about their workload.
"The officers in Billings, Montana, are not nearly as busy as the men and women of the Havre Police Department," Barthel said.
This is the second year the department has been asked not to fill a position, Barthel said. Last year, the department was asked to freeze hiring for six months, he said.
A probationary officer costs the city about $50,000 a year, with salary, benefits and other expenses included, Barthel said.
Another possible strain on his budget is a provision in the proposed contract between the city and the police union, he said. The proposal would allow officers to cash in compensatory time at the end of the year if it is not used. Officers receive a bank of time off at the beginning of the year, which serves as their compensation for holidays. If all of the officers on the force saved all of their time up and cashed it in at the end of the year, it would cost the department $28,000, Barthel said.
Barthel also said a change in how the Hill County Sheriff's Office handles booking and arraignments has added more stress to his work force.
On Sept. 1, Barthel received a memo from Sheriff Greg Szudera notifying him that county detention officers would no longer provide courtroom security for arraignments of inmates held at the Hill County Detention Center who were arrested in the city. In addition, the Havre Police Department is no longer allowed to use county facilities to book and fingerprint the people it arrests.
The city has since begun transporting inmates to Havre City Court for arraignments. Barthel said using one of his officers to transport prisoners and provide security in the courtroom is a "waste of manpower."
Barthel is also concerned about the safety of his personnel in situations where combative prisoners must be brought into the city Police Department for bookings and fingerprinting.
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said today he asked the city to provide security for city court arraignments because he doesn't have enough staff to do it.
Also, state statute gives that job to police departments, Szudera said.
"As the jail filled up, we would have had to hire more staff, " he said.
Szudera is supposed to hire a new officer to handle transportations and free up staff, but that officer has not been hired yet, he said. The Hill County Sheriff's Office has been short-staffed for several months.
Szudera also asked that the city book people at its own facility.
"Actually, they were getting in the way," Szudera said. "They (were) creating a security and safety" hazard.
Barthel said he hopes to utilize video arraignment and electronic fingerprinting equipment the county is installing. He said the equipment was acquired through grants that included city arrest statistics.