Atlantic City’s 330-officer police force plays a key role in improving the resort’s safety — and its image.
But last month, the department often struggled to muster even 20 of those officers to patrol the city where gunshots and violence are an almost nightly occurrence, according to rosters obtained by The Press of Atlantic City.
At least one shift had just 14 city police protecting the resort’s 39,558 residents, along with visitors who are estimated at 29 million annually.
Unlike some departments, Atlantic City does not set minimum staffing levels for patrol shifts, Police Chief Ernest Jubilee said.
“In this business, you can never have enough police officers,” said Public Safety Director Willie Glass, a retired veteran of the department. “Fact is, we don’t have enough numbers at certain times. One of our goals is, we’d like to have X amount on each shift.”
As of this week, 20 Special Law Enforcement Officer IIs assigned to two shifts will add six to seven patrolmen to the city’s streets. The so-called Class IIs — who have limited hours and no off-duty powers — will be assigned to the Boardwalk in an effort to increase the presence of full-time officers in the neighborhoods.
Law-enforcement leaders say that is just one step in trying to reconfigure how the city uses its 330-officer department, a number that has been agreed upon between the administration and police union.
A study is helping give insight into how schedule changes could boost police presence during peak times and rework how the current officers do their job. The city also qualified for a federal grant that could add 16 officers to the force — if the administration accepts the terms.
“If I had an extra 100 people, then you’re a little more free with mandating things,” Jubilee said of setting manpower minimums on patrol. “With our current staffing level, it doesn’t pay. We would always be in an overtime situation.”
To have 20 officers patrolling the streets on a shift, Jubilee explained, nearly 40 would have to be assigned to allow for things such as weekends, vacations and in-service training.
How that matches up against other departments is difficult to determine. Police officials in Atlantic City and in other towns cite officer safety as a reason for not revealing daily deployment numbers. But departments such as Trenton do have minimums, officials there say.
Trenton’s 229-officer department covers two-thirds the area of Atlantic City but has nearly twice the population. But Atlantic City’s violent-crime rate is also about 43 percent higher, according to the 2010 Uniformed Crime Report. Those most recent numbers show 21 Atlantic City residents per 1,000 were victims of violent crime compared with just more than 14 residents per 1,000 in Trenton.
“When you have minimums, you have the manpower that’s reasonable for your city,” said Detective Peter Szpakowski, the department’s spokesman. “When you get too low, then you’re becoming just a reactive police department.”
He stressed that he was speaking only from Trenton’s perspective and could not comment on Atlantic City’s numbers and what they mean there.
“We’ve been through this,” Szpakowski said. “When you have low numbers patrolling out there, obviously, something’s going to back up. Somebody’s going to have to wait.”
“Your high-priority jobs are always going to take precedent. You’re going to pull people from other jobs to take care of those, like your shots-fired calls, man shot, carjackings,” he added.
In Atlantic City, directed patrols are used in addition to those assigned to districts. These patrols focus on certain problems: one assigned to the neighborhoods, the other on the Boardwalk.
“Sometimes they’re used to supplement the shifts,” Jubilee said. “We try not to do it so that we can maintain those concentrated directed patrols.”
The Class IIs could help avoid that.
“As far as deployment is concerned, I don’t want them to work the same hours as our regular officers,” Jubilee said of the Class IIs. “I want this to maximize our coverage. I get more coverage if I put them on a shift unlike the current staff.”
Numbers can be misleading, said Glass, a veteran of the department who retired as a deputy chief. As an example, he said a quiet night may mean 18 officers are more than enough on the street, while a busy night makes it seem like 20 isn’t enough.
“That’s where the alternative work schedule comes in,” he said.
The city contracted to have a study done before Glass came onboard that looks at deployment needs. Several different schedules have been discussed that would put more officers on the streets during peak hours.
“One we’re looking at is a 10-hour workday with three days off,” Glass said. “But nothing is set.”
First, the city must discuss things with the police union.
“There are contractual issues with the alternate work schedule that need to be addressed,” said Paul Barbere, the local PBA’s newly elected president.
As for deployment, he said: “Our position from the union standpoint always is, we have to be concerned with officers’ safety as well as the safety of the residents and visitors. It’s always a concern.”
Tourism District Commander Tom Gilbert said he had seen the leadership working to make sure that happens.
“I do give them credit,” he said. “I see them brainstorming. I see them trying to make the most of their resources and serve the public as effectively as they can. I think they’re handling it in exactly the right way.”
The patrol numbers don’t include other units, such as vice, forensics and juvenile. They also do not factor in the federal, state and county agencies that are regularly in the city as part of the governor’s “clean and safe” mandate for the Tourism District, but whose numbers authorities will not reveal.
“We’ve been fortunate that we have other law-enforcement entities working in Atlantic City with us and assisting us,” Jubilee said.
Other units also have been trimmed to keep officers on the street. At one time there were 20 motorcycle officers. Now, there are seven or eight, Jubilee said, with those officers taking the same slower days of the week off so that they are at full staff most of the time. Crash investigations are handled by just two officers per shift.
“We don’t have the people inside that we once had,” Glass said.
His predecessor, Christine Petersen, once said there were too many officers inside and vowed to move them onto the streets.
Glass also pointed to changes in Casual Platoon, officers who are injured or out for other reasons. With changes that allow transitional duty, that platoon, which once saw 50 to 60 officers out, now has just 23 listed, which includes active military.
Last week, the city found out it may be able to add 16 officers to its 330 with a nearly $1.9 million grant from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services hiring program. But the money comes with conditions, and those have to be looked at before the city can agree to the terms, Glass said.
A new condition this year is that any newly hired officers must be military veterans with at least 180 days of active service since Sept. 11, 2001.
“It does require matching funds from the city,” Jubilee said. “It’s not a completely free grant.”
Glass stressed that they do want to take advantage of adding officers beyond the 330.
“We are trying to work that COPS grant into our plan,” he said. “It may not be 16, but we’re working with the numbers.”
The Class IIs also will pump up the year-round ranks. But after summer, the officers’ 48-hour weeks will be cut to 20 hours.
And there is an option to add Class IIs. Originally, the city planned to hire 25. But of the 26 candidates who entered the Cape May County Police Academy, 20 made it to the street. Whether to send more to the academy in the fall is up to the administration, Jubilee said.
“It is my desire to fill all available spots,” he said.
That includes keeping staffing at 330. Right now, the department is at about 321, with several more retirements expected by the end of the year. Background checks are being done to certify full-time candidates, who would enter the academy in August and could be on the street by Jan. 1.
There are no hard numbers yet, Glass said.
But to make sure there are enough to get 15 to 20 new officers, 100 need to be certified.
“I would like more officers, so we can do more things,” Jubilee said. “But we are managing with 330.”
Contact Lynda Cohen:
Follow @LyndaCohen on Twitter