More than 100 East Washington residents packed into a public hearing Monday night to overwhelmingly support keeping their police department, but the meeting also illustrated a sharp divide between borough officials.
The nearly two-hour public hearing at First Christian Church brought forward a range of options for what should happen to the police department and emotional opinions about the need to retain the borough’s police force.
The most controversial option was the revelation that the city of Washington has extended a contract offer to East Washington to overtake police services next year for $118,433. The proposal would offer “80 percent coverage” with increased patrols around the Lemoyne Center and Washington Park, but not increase the number of city officers.
The proposal is significantly lower than the current police budget for East Washington, which spends about $200,000 a year on police protection and employs a full-time chief and 16 part-time officers. It also is less than half the $260,063 budget proposal councilmembers Bill Adams and Lisa Crosier put forward to reorganize the department to have a full-time police chief, one full-time patrolman and four to seven part-time officers.
Still, the majority of residents raised concerns that contracting police protection with Washington would mean they would have less personal interaction with officers and the identity of East Washington would be lost.
“Some say there is no East Washington without our police department. I wouldn’t go that far, but I feel that the fabric of our community would unravel without it,” Crosier said. “If we farm out our police department I don’t believe we’ll get the same level of protection that we’re currently provided.”
But resident Ray Dunlevy noted the substantial costs savings in Washington’s contract proposal and the lack of a detective unit within East Washington’s department. Council President Blake McCandless, who gave a lengthy presentation on the department’s situation, said the current department does not have a holding cell or proper policy manual, and that future expenditures could balloon the borough’s budget.
“And nobody knows where we’re going with health care and pension costs,” McCandless said.
Resident Stanley Myers, though, suggested it would be easy to fix the policy manual and their department could continue using Washington’s holding cell. He questioned why there appeared to be a rush to make a change now and pleaded with council to delay any decision until next year when three new members take their seats on the board.
“What I don’t understand is where this came form and why now?” Myers said. “I never saw anything that we need to get rid of our police force now.”
Acting East Washington police Chief Mark Griffith called Washington’s contract proposal a “carrot” for the larger municipality to eventually dissolve the borough. Several borough police officers stood beside him during the hearing while wearing shirts memorializing Officer John David Dryer, who was slain during a traffic stop in December 2011.
“I knew the support would be here,” Griffith said of the number of residents attending the hearing. “Without the police department, there is no East Washington Borough. Without it, in a couple of years this borough would be annexed by the city.”
The hearing appeared to show a divide between the council with Crosier and Adams sitting at one table and McCandless, Ben Brown, Gregg Gould, Jeff Bull and Kelley Dickson sitting at the other several feet away. Meanwhile, Pacilla and McCandless sparred over the accuracy of crime statistics and the future budget costs.
“You’re painting a picture that these guys are doing a bad job,” Pacilla said of the police statistics that were apparently filed incorrectly. “Your numbers are wrong.”
Dickson, who is leaving council at the end of this year, said that people shouldn’t assume such a divide and that it was not a foregone conclusion they would agree to a contract proposal with Washington. Dickson also said she would not be opposed to allowing the new council to review the proposals and make a decision next year.
“It’s important to the residents that we make the right decision,” Dickson said.
McCandless said the issue undoubtedly would be discussed at next month’s council meetings, but did not speculate on whether they would ultimately vote on the issue.