Chief’s call for officer denied

AMHERST – Police Chief Mark Reams failed yet again to convince the town Ways & Means Committee to recommend another officer.

Selectmen unanimously support the $90,000 line item for an additional patrol officer in the operating budget for next year, which would give the department a staff of 19. However, Ways & Means explained its opposition last month and again at the Jan. 9 town budget hearing.

“The data doesn’t support adding another officer,” committee Chairman John D’Angelo said near the end of a long discussion. “We all agree we’ll have to add a police officer, but we’re not convinced this is the year.”

Reams disagreed.

“With all due respect, you folks aren’t criminologists,” he told committee members, saying quantitative data doesn’t tell much.

For example, if in one year there are 650 arrests and another year 500, he said, that doesn’t necessarily mean crime went down. It could mean that in the first year, there was a highly motivated patrol officer, or in the second year, the department was understaffed.

“I try to make sure the town is covered in a responsible manner,” Reams said, “and just two people can’t do it.”

The chief also used the example of firearms training. The department spends thousands of dollars every year on training that is rarely put to use, he said, and he has only drawn his gun once in 24 years working in Amherst.

But, he said, “I don’t back off on that.”

In a survey of residents, their highest priorities were neighborhood coverage and traffic.

“I can’t address traffic without three-car coverage,” Reams said.

When there are three cruisers on the road, “no matter what happens,” there will be a patrol car, he said.

Amherst police chiefs have been asking for another officer for more than 19 years, Reams said, which means “at least $1 million is still in taxpayers’ pockets.”

Selectman Tom Grella noted that the past three chiefs, for whom he said he has the “utmost respect,” have all asked for another officer, and one has been added in 18 years. Overtime goes up when a department isn’t fully staffed, said Reams, who said trying to save $90,000 is short-sighted.

Selectmen’s Chairman Dwight Brew cited a number of reasons for the hire, including bringing the Amherst Police Department up to state and national standards.

“The wrong time to beef up a force is after there is more crime,” he said.

People should be made aware that “Amherst is a secure community that is well policed,” Brew said.

Committee members, however, said Amherst’s crime rate is low and that the extra officer would have no effect on response time or the heroin epidemic.

Reams was back before selectmen and Ways & Means on Jan. 16 with a slide presentation, saying, “I’m passionate about this.”

The town Deliberative Session is Wednesday, Feb. 8, when voters will discuss and possibly amend the bottom line of the operating budget and other articles.

The tax impact if all town warrant articles pass, including the operating budget, would be $5.53, a 43 cent increase.

Other articles add to capital reserve funds – for the communications center, bridge repair and replacement, computer systems and the ambulance service.

Other articles modify the tax exemption for the elderly, blind and disabled, and spread the town’s $500 veterans tax exemption to all veterans, no matter when they served.

Voters will also be asked to approve a $70,000 article to build Forest View Cemetery, on the site of the old Cemetery Fields recreation area. The vote will have no tax impact, since the money is already in the cemetery trust fund.

Cost items in a new three-year police union contract that total $53,000 for the first year are also on the warrant.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.