The Cortland Police Department is facing its greatest staffing shortage in decades, and police officers must sometimes work back-to-back eight-hour shifts.
The department needs to hire four officers despite hiring six officers last year, said Deputy Chief David Guerrera. Of the six, two resigned for personal reasons.
“Right now, staffing is at an all-time low,” said Officer Jeff Fitts, the Cortland police union president. “We’re short more manpower than we’ve seen in a generation.”
Officers are being forced to stay for a second shift if someone calls in sick or if there’s a gap in schedule, Guerrera said, so the department can maintain a minimum number of officers for each shift.
“To remedy it, we need more officers,” Fitts said.
The city exhausted the 2020-21 Cortland County civil service list and expects as few as 14 people to make the cut for the 2021-22 list that comes out this month, Guerrera said.
“It’s a problem that there’s only 14 people on that list because not all of those people will pass a police background check,” he said.
Complicating matters, the city pays less than surrounding agencies, with whom the department competes, Guerrera said. Starting salary for officers is $45,656. Candidates certified from a police academy start at $51,576.
Outgoing Mayor Brian Tobin’s decision Friday not to allow police to move to a schedule that doesn’t require officers to rotate shifts every 28 days was a slap in the face, Fitts said.
“People don’t want to rotate every month,” he said, because moving from one shift to another leads to sleep deprivation.
Guerrera and Fitts said Chief Paul Sandy is willing to put officers on a fixed schedule that will allow police to stay on the same shift for a full year.
“This is something that we’ve all agreed on is a problem and we could fix,” Fitts said. “The schedule costs nothing.”
Tobin is using the schedule as a bargaining chip in contract mediation, in return for lower raises in a new contract, Fitts said, an allegation Tobin denies.
“That’s absolutely not true,” he said. “We said that we agree to that (the shift change) in principle.”
Both schedules and salaries are being negotiated, but the offer to the police union is consistent with other labor unions, such as the firefighter and wastewater unions, Tobin said.
The last two-year union contract expired in January.
“Quite frankly it comes down to ability to pay,” Tobin said. “I’m disappointed that this is being shared with the press because we’re still in contract negotiations.”
The staffing shortage and double shifts are a huge concern, said Mayor-elect Scott Steve.
“I am aware that there is concern for health and safety and decision-making processes if they’re (officers) stretched on these long-term shifts,” Steve said. “We need to be supportive and proactive in trying to come up with solutions.”
Steve said that if a fixed schedule is favored by both the chief and the union, and does not result in raising public costs, then the change makes sense.
“I’m concerned about any decision they’re going to make between now and the end of the year,” Steve said. “I don’t know why they’re trying to ratify when they’re 60 days from a new administration.”