Thursday, February 20, 2003

Military call-ups strain police forces in Ohio, elsewhere

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio - Seventeen-year policeman John Grote has had to give up his daytime desk job and work the overnight shift. He gets called in on his days off and often has to respond to calls alone when it would be better to have backup.

He also sees less of his wife and 7-year-old daughter.

"She knows that Dad comes home at 6 o'clock in the morning and gets her off to school," Grote said. "My family understands that. I'm absolutely not complaining."

Grote's life changed nearly 1 years ago, when one of this western Ohio village's eight police officers was called to military duty.

The call-up of military reservists for duty in Afghanistan, for homeland security and to prepare for a possible war against Iraq has strained police and sheriff departments nationwide.

The 44-officer police department in Martinsburg, W.Va., lost four officers to military duty in 2001, prompting two Navy recruiters to patrol the streets as volunteers.

"It was 10 percent of the department," said Chief Ted Anderson. "I had to work the other guys longer. It set us back."

Three of the officers have returned to the force, but two others may be called up soon.

The Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum says 44 percent of 976 law enforcement agencies it surveyed from September to November reported losing personnel to reservist duty.

"It's not a problem that has a really easy answer," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

To make up for missing officers, sheriffs and police chiefs have been forced to pay more overtime, transfer officers to ensure that essential services are covered, borrow officers from other agencies and speed up plans to put volunteers on the streets.

In a few weeks, volunteers in Fargo, N.D., will begin keeping records, calling crime victims to update them on cases and enforcing handicapped-parking violations. Retired bankers, teachers and businessmen are among the approximately 60 people who have signed up.

"We're in more of a hurry to do it than we were before," said Lt. Tod Dahle. The department had considered such a program before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and began putting it together about six months ago.

The 67-officer police department in Smyrna, Tenn., has lost three officers to military duty since December and will soon lose a fourth.

"When you talk about four people, that's half a shift," Chief Mike Beach said. Beach said he expects overtime to increase and officers to give up vacation time.

He said it is difficult to hire new officers because he must keep slots open for the departed officers. In addition, the city has agreed to make up the difference in the police and military salaries of those activated, reducing funds available to hire new officers.

In Ohio, about 4,000 reservists and guardsmen have been called to active duty. It's not known how many of those in Ohio or the nation are police officers.

Two men in the 130-officer Clark County Sheriff's Department in Springfield have been on military duty for more than a year, and it isn't known when they will return.

"I can't make any plans," Sheriff Gene Kelly said. "In these days of tight budgets, I can't afford to replace them, but it's also costing me overtime."

Both officers had worked in a seven-person office in New Carlisle, a city of 7,000 that relies solely on the sheriff's department for protection. Kelly replaced them with officers from Springfield.

Two officers in the 28-person Goffstown, N.H., police department have been on military duty since the week of the terrorist attacks. It has meant juggling schedules and budgets and getting more money for overtime.

"There's only so much overtime you can work before you need a break," said Police Chief Mike French.

In Seekonk, Mass., Police Chief Vito Scotti wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge asking for federal grant money to hire more officers. Four of the department's 33 officers are away on military duty.

"It's created a severe hardship on our department," said Scotti, who hasn't received an answer.

The 640-person Wichita, Kan., police department has had to resort to overtime to cover for the eight officers called up beginning in October 2001.

The department fears more will be called to duty.

"We're all kind of holding our breath," said Janet Johnson, assistant to the chief.

Some police departments have had to scramble because they lost officers with specialized training.

One of four Youngstown police officers called to military duty is a sniper on the SWAT team. Lt. Robin Lees, who runs the team, said he has had to borrow a sniper from the sheriff's department a few times.

"It's not like I've got a lot of people to do that," Lees said.

Two of the 31 police officers in the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg were sent to duty last year and don't know when they will return.

"We're all proud of them," said Lt. David Weaver. "But it would be nice to have them back."

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