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‘Something’s got to give’: Sylva police chief argues for more officers

Every year, Sylva’s department heads have a chance to tell town commissioners what they need — and what they want — in the next year’s budget. During a Jan. 28 work session, Police Chief Chris Hatton kept his list short and to the point. 

“My needs are real simple,” he said. “Two officers is what I’m asking for. To be honest, the numbers would justify more.”

 

Exploding demand

The Sylva Police Department employs 14 sworn officers, a level that has remained constant since 2008, even as calls for service have doubled. 

Hatton made a similar argument during last year’s budget talks in 2020, telling commissioners that call volumes had risen more than 30 percent between 2016 and 2019, with total arrests more than doubling in the same period. 

Over the past year, the situation has escalated. The number of officer actions and calls for service increased by 64.7 percent between 2019 and 2020, shooting up from 8,199 in 2019 to 13,500 last year. 

“We thought we’d hit 13,000 calls by 2024,” Hatton told commissioners. “Well, we hit that and surpassed it last year.”

Officers responded to 130 different types of situations, everything from speeding complaints to wellness checks to 911 calls. Interestingly enough, said Hatton, actual crime is down. Officers took fewer incident reports and did fewer investigations in 2020 than the previous year, but spiking calls for other types of situations more than compensated. In particular, Hatton’s department saw an increase in calls related to illegal drug use, mental illness and poverty or homelessness. In 2020, they saved 11 lives using Narcan to reverse overdoses. 

“I wish we could rename our profession, because we’re called law enforcement but actually a small portion of our job is spent on enforcing laws,” he said. “They should call us community problems solvers.”

While Hatton said he anticipates the numbers going down some in 2021 as the pandemic eases, he said he doesn’t expect them to fall very much. He needs more officers, he told commissioners. 

It’s not just about calls for service. As it is, Sylva relies on help from other jurisdictions to staff special events, because the town doesn’t have enough officers to close down Main Street on its own. When somebody goes on vacation or travels for a training course, another officer must work on what would otherwise be a day off to cover those shifts. 

“Something’s got to give, because they are asking more and more from our staff, and we don’t have it to give,” said Hatton. “The frustrating part for me as the chief is, I see situations that are happening where we could really do a better job, but because we’re so busy we’re not able to sink in and dig in on that problem.”

 

Weighing the price tag

While the list was short, Hatton’s request was the most costly on commissioners’ final list of departmental needs and wants. Salary and benefits would cost $59,000 for each hire, plus additional needs like uniforms and equipment. A fully equipped police car costs about $44,000. During the meeting, commissioners discussed delaying the surplus of an existing police car if just one additional officer were hired but buying one new car if two were hired. 

The police department is already the biggest ticket item in the town budget, which in fiscal year 2020-21 clocked in at $4.16 million all told. Of that, the police department made up $1.4 million, or 33.7 percent. 

“The police department is such a big part of our budget for our town, and I feel like we should be having a whole session on just talking about policing and the police department,” said Commissioner Ben Guiney. 

Commissioners recognized the challenges Hatton’s department is facing but had questions about the request. Commissioner David Nestler pointed out that Sylva has more officers per thousand town residents than surrounding towns such as Waynesville, Franklin and Bryson City. Why, he wanted to know, was the department still so overloaded? 

“Sylva is a small population on paper, but our traffic volume is through the roof,” Hatton replied. “Our main intersection here sees the same amount of traffic as Tunnel Road (in Asheville). We have a lot of people coming through our town who don’t necessarily live here.”

Nestler also asked how much of the increase in officer actions was due to technology that makes it easier for officers to log activities during their shift. Hatton said that’s a consideration that could be inflating the numbers somewhat but that his department is still seeing “a heck of a spike.”

Commissioner Greg McPherson questioned Hatton about the type of training the new officers would receive. Would they receive training that reflects “the 21st-Century evolution of the police department?” he asked. 

“Our training for police officers is not something that just happens and it’s over,” Hatton replied. “We have mandatory training we do every year.”

New officers will receive the same basic training that current officers had upon being hired. But Hatton said he makes it a priority to seek opportunities to get his officers trained in “the modern topics everyone is interested in.” This year, he said, his officers are taking classes on decision-making for law enforcement and de-escalation tactics.

 

Budget priorities

Despite the request’s hefty price tag, board members ranked hiring additional officers as their top priority for the 2021-22 budget. 

Each board member received 24 votes to affix to any of the 15 budget wants and needs identified during the work session — members could spread the votes out over a large number of items or cluster them all around a smaller number of items of particular importance to them. Additional officers received more votes than any of the other priorities listed, with 28 votes for hiring one additional officer and 23 votes to fill Hatton’s entire request for two officers. 

The second-place pick, with 19 votes, was a new Polaris vehicle for use in Pinnacle Park, a $19,000 price tag. That request came from Public Works Director Jake Scott but would be a shared asset with the police department. 

Currently, Scott’s crew uses town trucks to get up the trail for maintenance, a steep and rocky drive that is extremely hard on the vehicles and allows for access to only a small portion of the 1,529 forested acres under town ownership — crews haven’t done any maintenance on the newly acquired Blackrock Creek property because it is so inaccessible. Scott wants to buy an off-road vehicle that will fit up to six crew members within a 6-foot footprint. The model he hopes to buy would also have a roof and a windshield to allow crews to get out of the weather should a storm come up while they’re out working. 

Hatton applauded that ask, telling commissioners about a recent call his department had about overdue hikers at Pinnacle Park. It was around 5:30 p.m. on a night when temperatures were predicted to fall below freezing, and the missing group included some small children. 

“We used Jake’s guys’ trucks, and it did not go smoothly at all trying to get to some of those places,” he said. “Thank goodness we got there to start looking for these folks and they came out. That was wonderful, but we’re going to have situations where folks actually get lost out there.”

Commissioners’ third budget priority, with 15 votes, was $13,000 for a part-time sanitation employee to help out with the explosion of solid waste Scott’s department has been dealing with. In 2019, crews picked up 1,056 tons of municipal solid waste, and in 2020 that figure shot up to 1,293.5 tons. 

Next was $7,000 to research the feasibility of a public bathroom downtown, with 14 votes, and then a $7,000 boom-mounted mowing head with 12 votes. Tied with 11 votes were improvements to Bryson Park, Bridge Park improvements and new town entrance signs. All other listed priorities received fewer than 10 votes. 

The board’s next planned budget discussion will occur at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 25, when they will work with staff to prioritize needs and objectives for the coming year. 

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