Small town police departments handle more than crime

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Tuesday, August 14, 2012

— Being a small town police chief requires the standard set of crime fighting skills, a thick skin, and, occasionally, the ability to change the brake pads on a squad car.

In these days of decreasing property values and state funding cuts, small police departments are finding their budgets under scrutiny. In some cases, budget cuts have led officials to consider contracting for services with larger agencies, such as a county sheriff's office.

But while the price might be right, small town police say their departments offer intangible services that don't always show up on official statistics, and those are the services their communities value.

Service first

Hunter Gilmore took over as chief of the Darien Police Department after the village had weathered a series of embarrassing leadership problems.

Gilmore came from a larger, suburban department in Illinois and believes in the value of a small-town department.

"Everybody's worried about budgets and services," Gilmore said, "but if they sit in a small department for any amount of time, they'll see how intimately involved the police department is with the community."

People wander into headquarters to share concerns about everything from family problems to traffic concerns, scams targeting seniors to thefts, vandalism and noise complaints.

It takes a thick skin and a patient disposition to be a chief or an officer in a small community, Gilmore said.

Gilmore recently created a set of parking ordinances he thought would improve the village's appeal to outsiders and make things better for residents and businesses.

After the village board approved them, residents have gone to his office either to read him the riot act or to tell him the new rules are long overdue.

"The community is certainly split on the issue," Gilmore said. "You gotta have thick skin. You have to be able to listen to everybody."

As a small town chief, "you get immediate feedback," he said.

At the same time, the small departments have to maintain the same professional standards as their big city cohorts and deal with the same kinds of crime.

It's also more of a challenge to deal with changes.

"The smaller you are, the more dynamic things are; the harder it is to recover," Gilmore said. "It just takes time."

Recently, the department signed a separation agreement with one of its officers after a disciplinary action. The agreement called for the village to buy out the officer's remaining vacation hours and other time. As a result, it left the village without an officer and without the money to pay for a new one.

The village is now considering how to pay for a replacement.

Cost of service

"How important is it to have officers on duty 24-7?" asked Diana Dykstra, village of Darien administrator. "We enjoy the feeling of comfort or security of having our own police department."

But it's not cheap.

Outfitting a police department requires special vehicles, special equipment and office and garage space.

And no matter how small the community, providing full-time coverage means having enough officers to work three shifts seven days a week. With vacations, sick days and training, that means at least five officers.

Many have suggested that small-town chiefs take a turn on the road.

"In smaller communities, people expect to see the chief out on the street," Dykstra said.

In the village of Clinton, Police Chief Jim Korth said he's rarely on the road.

"The majority of my job is administration," Korth said.

Along with running his department, he sometimes is called in for other, non-police related administrative tasks, such as running the cables for the computer network in city hall or installing new radio equipment.

"We're trying to keep the village costs down," Korth said. "I once replaced the brake pads on a police car."

As in Darien, Clinton police are expected to cover serious crimes, do code and ordinance enforcement, settle disputes that might otherwise end up in civil court and unlock car doors.

"We're one of the few departments that still does vehicle unlocks," Korth said.

Of course, such departments have to deal with significantly fewer serious crimes, such as burglary, rape, murder and robbery.

"For the past couple of years, the buzz word has been community policing," Korth said. "We've been doing community policing for years."

Dykstra commented that Clinton's police department had been successful, partially because Korth has provided stable leadership.

Gilmore faces the challenge of playing catch up from when the department didn't have a chief, she said.

Service options

Walworth County Sheriff David Graves doesn't like to talk about contract policing. He values the relationship he has with the local police chiefs.

"The chiefs feel—well, I don't want to use the word threatened, but it creates bad feelings," Graves said.

The sheriff's office doesn't pursue contracts to provide police services for the county's villages and towns, but will, if asked, work up a plan and cost estimates for any municipal government.

For example, the department provides the boat patrol for Whitewater Lake for the town of Whitewater.

In 2010, Darien trustees asked the sheriff's office for a services plan.

In his presentation, the sheriff outlined several advantages for the municipality, including:

-- Personnel matters would be the sheriff's responsibility.

-- Liability would be reduced.

-- The municipality would retain local control and identity. Squad cars used by deputies to patrol the village could have a Darien logo along with the sheriff's department logo, for example.

-- The sheriff's office would absorb village officers that met qualifications.

Graves said the contract police system has worked well in Waukesha County, where the sheriff's office provides law enforcement for a variety of towns and villages.

The municipalities that contract with Waukesha County get the same amount of police presence, have squad cars and particular officers assigned to their areas, and often have a police substation.

It would have cost Darien slightly less to contract with the county, but in the end, the village trustees decided to keep the village police department. Graves said trustees were concerned about losing local control.

The village of Sharon had an opportunity to change law enforcement services about a year ago when a longtime chief retired.

Dykstra, who also is Sharon village president, said officials absolutely wanted to keep the village police department.

Last updated: 5:09 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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