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Yellow Springs police flush by comparison

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This is the sixth in a series of articles examining the local police department and its relationship to the village.
• Click here to view all the articles the series


The town of Granville, with a small university, a healthy business district and proximity to a major city, is similar in many ways to Yellow Springs. But Granville, located 25 miles east of Columbus, has slightly fewer police officers per capita than Yellow Springs, as do five other towns of comparable size and composition in the western-central Ohio region. All seven towns spend between 30 and 50 percent of their general fund budgets on the police, with some departments subsidizing their budget with a police levy. While police in some of the towns live within the jurisdictions they serve, officers in other places live outside the city limits. And police chiefs among the seven towns had different ideas about the meaning of community policing.

A national standard for law enforcement practices is difficult to find. Policing is unique to each community, and each police department is designed around its own community’s population, budget, crime trends, minimum manning levels and sometimes a detailed work-load analysis, according to a 2012 criminal justice study published by the ICMA Center for Public Safety Management. But comparing Yellow Springs police to police in comparable towns highlights some similarities and some differences between departments.

For example, several chiefs said this month that budget plays an especially significant role in determining the “what can I afford” brand of staffing — an issue that became more common after the 2008 recession. Yet in Yellow Springs, despite two years of minor deficit spending in the general fund, which funds the police department, local police staffing has increased.

Also in other towns, the police chief is required to live in the community the department serves, while in Yellow Springs, Police Chief Hale lives in Washington Township near Centerville. Though they’re not required to, some officers in other towns also live locally, though in communities where property values are high, most officers live remotely. Similarly, in Yellow Springs, all but one full-time officer live out of town.

And while community policing in Yellow Springs means working together to solve crime, some of the other departments see it as a hyper focus on relation building and making sure police are responding at every moment to what the community says it wants.

Staffing to need

Relative to national police statistics and safety standards, the village of Yellow Springs has ample police for its size. With a population of 3,500 (2013 Census), the Village has 10 sworn officers (including the police chief), or 2.8 officers per 1,000 residents.

Though the Department of Justice cautions against using population to determine police staffing levels, the federal agency recommends 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents, which several departments in the region used to help gauge their staffing levels. According to data published by the FBI each year, the national average ratio of police to population is 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents, and 2.7 officers per 1,000 in Midwestern towns with less than 10,000 people. And on a more regional scale, the average ratio of officers to residents for the six towns comparable to Yellow Springs is 1.4 officers per 1,000 residents.

According to Yellow Springs Police Chief David Hale, the local department bases the number of officers needed on not just the residential population but the visitor population, which can rise to over 6,000 on weekends, especially in warmer seasons. Hale has also said that the high number of businesses in town puts demand on police to ensure the security of those operations.

In past years, the local department has been smaller. Though the Village did not have complete staffing records for the police department, according to Yellow Springs News archives, in 2003 and 2012 the department was down to six sworn officers, in both cases following the departure of the police chief with leaders commenting that the department was understaffed. In the intervening years, the department climbed back up to a “fully staffed” department of nine in both 2004 and 2013, and now has a full complement of 10.

To support the current level of law enforcement, the Village budgets about 44 percent of its general fund budget on the police department, which has an annual budget of about $1.4 million. Local dispatch has been maintained, as well as the average annual cost of $25,000 a year to staff a full-time officer at the Greene County ACE Task Force (five-year average of furtherance of justice revenue minus one officer’s salary and benefits).

Staffing on a budget

Cities comparable to Yellow Springs spend within a similar range of their general funds on the PD, but they staff fewer officers. Bluffton, a university town of 4,100 just off I-75 near Lima, staffs two officers per 1,000 residents and uses 34 percent of the city’s general fund to support the department. According to Police Chief Rick Skilliter, due to state cuts to local governments, Bluffton was down to six officers and feeling strained to police the 1,100 students at Bluffton University and the local hospital (neither of which has security officers), a healthy downtown business district, five major industries and an interstate business district that has generated two shootouts and a bank robbery during which the suspect set himself on fire.

Even with the addition of eight part-time officers, the Bluffton PD is “stretched pretty thin for coverage.” Part-time officers often work day jobs and have little time for additional training or connecting with the community, and they tend to have a higher turnover. Skilliter aims to have two officers on most shifts because of the generally accepted practice that the more officers responding on a call, the less likely they are to use aggressive tactics.

“It’s been shown that it’s more dangerous with one officer because that person has fewer options to resolve a hostile environment and is more likely to resort to tools such as holds, a taser, pepper spray, or, god forbid, deadly force,” Skilliter said.

Granville PD staffs at a similar ratio to Bluffton, with 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents and devotes 30 percent of its general fund budget to operate the PD on a $1.35 million budget. Granville, population 5,700, retains 10 full- and six part-time officers to cover the town’s thriving business district and Dennison University’s 2,100-student campus, which also has its own security.

“Ten full time is … ideal for our community not because of crime rate, but because the community as a whole wants to enjoy 24/7 police coverage,” according to Granville Police Chief Bill Caskey.

Police Chiefs Doug Doherty of Bellbrook and Lew Wilcox of Enon agreed that their cities’ budgets greatly influenced the size of the police department. With 7,000 people, Bellbrook has 12 full-time officers, or 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents; while Enon, population 2,600, staffs four full-time officers, or 1.5 per 1,000. Doherty insists on staffing a minimum of two officers per shift, and with the help of two part timers, is able to accomplish that goal. Though he would like to get to the DOJ’s recommended standard of 2.1 officers per 1,000, he is cognizant of the bottom line.

“A lot of chiefs use that as a standard, but probably most departments have less after the recession,” Doherty said. “You can only have what you can afford.”

Though Enon’s ratio of officers to population is comparable to Bellbrook, the village empirically has so few officers that even with the assistance of six part-time officers to fill in the gaps and on weekends, Wilcox can only staff one officer on most shifts.

“I would like more full-time people, but it won’t happen based on the finances,” he said. “When someone’s out due to illness, vacation or training, we have to juggle people around … even one more full-time person would give us much more latitude for scheduling.”

Bellbrook devotes 50 percent of its general fund to support its $1.6 million annual police budget. And while Enon spends 42 percent of its general fund on police, the department derives the majority of its $450,000 annual budget from two police operating levies. Neither department has local dispatch, and both stretch their resources for as much coverage as they can afford.

“People pay extra money to have 24-hour police protection and we can’t just stop because crime doesn’t stop between the hours of 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.,” Wilcox said. “We cruise the neighborhoods, rattle the doors at night, respond to people who get sick day and night and when fires happen.”

If Bellbrook and Enon departments run lean operations, Cedarville and Union are both on strict policing diets. Cedarville staffs 1 full-time officer per 1,000 people, and Union has slightly less than one per 1,000 residents. Both towns lean heavily on part-time officers, which greatly outnumber the full-time staff, and deal with the inconvenience of a constantly changing pool of people to depend on.

While Union, with 6,400 people, is slightly bigger than Yellow Springs, as a bedroom community without a business district, there is very little crime, according to Union Police Chief Mike Blackwell, who doubles as the city’s fire chief. Still, the city manages to get two to three officers on most of its shifts using five full-time and eight part-time officers with an annual budget of just over $900,000.

Cedarville, on the other hand, with four full-time and 20 part-time officers, often gets stuck with just one officer on a shift to police the village of 4,000 with a small business district and support Cedarville University security for 3,600 students. With a tax exempt university as the village’s largest employer and local government funding cuts, Cedarville police subsist on a budget of $320,000, which includes a salary of $53,000 for Chief Chris Gillaugh, a Cedarville native.

Effect on community policing

While most of these small-town police departments operate on relatively tight budgets, many still practice what their leaders feel is successful community policing. Variously defined as public service type policing, officers knowing the residents they serve, community and police working together, interacting with residents in a positive manner, and seeing the community as part of a family, community policing is a practice several of the local chiefs felt they were living.

“Honestly, when you’re in a small community that’s what you do because everybody knows you — there’s no such thing as a secret,” Cedarville Chief Gillaugh said. “You know the people because you see them every day.”

Bluffton’s Chief Skilliter agreed that community policing is second nature to small town officers, who know that building trust in the community makes it easier for residents to approach police when they have a problem.

“We were doing community policing long before the governor’s task force prescribed it,” he said.

Community policing is also policing with a focus on safety rather than crime, according to Granville’s Chief Caskey.

“There are far too many agencies which have become (or are becoming) ‘militarized’ through the war on drugs, and this is reflected in their attitudes and their dealings with the citizenry,” Caskey wrote in an email last week. “Perhaps we are a little too Norman Rockwell here, but I would rather my officers spend time interacting with the residents in a positive manner, and in one that reflects the fact that we are literally servants to the people, and not an occupying force.”

To Enon’s Chief Wilcox, community policing means involving residents as “the eyes and ears” of the department. It’s also providing help to people in emergency financial or physical need, he said. Police connect with the community through events such as annual National Night Out, a community barbeque and game night aimed at building trust and solidarity between police and the public.

“We try to mix with people as much as we can, and when they need something, they can come and see us,” Wilcox said. “Community policing also pays off for us — people tell us when they see things that are suspicious.”

Similarly, Union engages in a kind of community policing that uses “Block Watch” (a national program), “vacation house watch” and “speech watch” to “mobilize communities to take action against crime.”

Local residency can facilitate a sense of familiarity and accessibility between police and citizens, several chiefs interviewed for this story said. Ohio law requires local residency for police chiefs, but village and city councils can waive the requirement in the officer’s contract, as in Chief Hale’s case.

But the chiefs of Cedarville, Union, Bluffton and Granville live in or on the border of the towns they serve, and several said local residency for the chief is good for the community.

“It has its ups and downs — I can’t go the grocery or out to a restaurant without someone saying, ‘Hey, chief,’” according to Chief Skilliter of Bluffton, nine of whose full- and part-time officers also live in town. “But I’m okay with the chief living here. It’s good for public relations, and it’s good for the community to be able to approach the chief and discuss things with him or her.”

Also aiding in community policing, several chiefs said, is the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team, a program that teaches first responders how to work effectively with residents with a mental illness. In Yellow Springs, all full-time officers except the chief in Yellow Springs have some training in crisis intervention, but not the 40-hour program, according to Hale.

Bluffton has required CIT training for its full-time officers for the past eight years, and three of eight part-timers are also trained.

“It plays into the need to have resources for officers so they don’t resort to hurting people or getting hurt,” Chief Skilliter said.

All of Granville’s officers are CIT-trained, and half of Bellbrook’s officers are certified, and that department sends one officer each year to CIT training.

“Our officers are all CIT-trained and always engage in verbal de-escalation tactics whenever possible,” Granville’s Chief Caskey said. “99.9 percent of our arrests occur without incident.”

Caskey also added that though his officers will file charges if they find illegal drugs and “are aware of the war on drugs, we are not participants.”

“Is it a more responsible use of tax payer funds to put an officer out and encourage drivers to slow down where children are, or is it more responsible to have an officer running around trying to find someone to sell them a marijuana joint?” he wrote. “I would argue for the former.”

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