NEWARK, NJ – One day after the city matched its 2010 homicide total, the Newark Police Department eliminated its minimum staffing levels to combat a dwindling overtime budget, a move some fear will compromise safety as the state’s largest city enters what is usually one of the most dangerous months of the year.
Police Director Samuel DeMaio said the change was necessary because the overtime situation as well as holiday scheduling is making it difficult to maintain previous staffing levels, which required a minimum of eight officers to patrol each of the city’s five precincts in the morning and after midnight. Ten officers were normally assigned to patrol in the afternoon.
Now, DeMaio will assign patrols based on the needs of each precinct, meaning some neighborhoods could see more officers while others may see less.
On Tuesday night, there were six officers on patrol in the 5th Precinct and seven in the 2nd Precinct, according to police documents obtained by The Star-Ledger.
“Is my minimum staffing level on a Tuesday going to be the same as it needs to be on a Friday? “No. Tuesday is a quiet night,” he said.
DeMaio insists he can keep the city safe by taking officers and detectives from the traffic, major crimes and robbery squads and putting them in patrol cars when more officers are needed on the street.
“There will be a minimum staffing level. However, it’s not going to be a cookie-cutter staffing,” DeMaio said. “Needs and staffing are going to be different at different times of the day and different days of the week, and that’s how it’s going to be managed.”
Still, some community leaders said the changes could be problematic and police union officials said reducing the number of officers in a given area would lead to slower response times and prove dangerous for officers on duty.
“If six cops go out in the West District and there is a shooting … that will leave nobody to handle the other jobs,” said James Stewart Jr., vice president of Newark’s Fraternal Order of Police. “This puts the community in jeopardy, and it puts the police officers in danger.”
The change was announced Nov. 28, one a day after Newark recorded its 86th homicide of the year, matching the total for all of 2010.
The Star-Ledger obtained an e-mail from Deputy Chief Anthony Campos on Monday alerting precinct commanders that “there is no longer core or minimum staffing … there is absolutely no overtime available for staffing under any circumstances.”
DeMaio said Campos’ e-mail is “totally incorrect,” and said the decision was a change in staffing policy, not the elimination of one.
The department’s overtime budget for 2011 was $4 million, of which just $250,000 remains for December, DeMaio said. Since the department is contractually obligated to pay overtime in certain situations, there isn’t much left for patrol, the director said.
West Ward Councilman Ron Rice questioned why the overtime coffer was nearly drained.
“I voted for the budget as it was because I was pretty much assured that the overtime budget would be sufficient,” he said. “I’m a little perplexed as to why it was not.”
A year ago, 163 officers were laid off as the city struggled with a mounting budget crisis. Nearly 75 more positions were lost to attrition.
As the number of officers declined, violence in the city increased. Aside from homicides, shootings have jumped 24 percent since last year, according to police statistics. Overall crime is up 6 percent.
Union leaders say the latest move will put police and citizens at risk in December, when crime normally increases.
“If we don’t have any numbers, how much leeway do they have? Are they going to say we can go out with four guys tonight?” Stewart said, expressing concern the lack of a minimum will allow precinct commanders to assign fewer officers to patrol large areas. “How can you predict what’s going to happen tonight?”
Mayor Cory Booker dismissed Stewart’s comments as fear-mongering by a police union he has sparred with since last year’s layoffs.
“The FOP needs to stop trying to wind up the press and scare the public. Instead, they should work with us to better protect the public,” Booker said. “That is their sworn oath; it’s about time they start abiding by it.”
From The Star Ledger.