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Passage of override paves way for new Northampton police hires

Michael W. Graham

Michael W. Graham Purchase photo reprints »

The override, approved by voters June 25, allows the police department to restore four open positions, according to Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz.

Those positions are in addition to three openings for which hirings had previously been OK’d. One of those is being filled by a new hire, Michael W. Graham, 29, of Westfield, who is undergoing the city’s training program for recruits.

Graham graduated from the Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy in June and is attending the department’s 15-week field training and evaluation program.

The two other positions remain open, which makes a total of six vacancies for patrol officers on the force, Sienkiewicz said.

The department is budgeted for 65 full-time officers, but has been operating with about 58 for about six months, according to Sienkiewicz.

In a telephone interview Monday, Sienkiewicz said even the full complement of 65 police department employees isn’t ideal to respond to the number of calls the department gets.

He said the department gets about 40,000 calls per year and makes approximately 1,300 arrests per year on average.

Fewer full-time officers means slower response times to non-emergency calls, shuffling of time off and extra overtime to cover open shifts. It also means a less visible presence downtown, which can frustrate business owners and residents who want to see more officers.

“We’re constantly juggling where and when to send people,” Sienkiewicz said.

Filling out the roster to 65 may ease some of the burden, but won’t eliminate that tension, according to Sienkiewicz.

It is possible that some or all of the four new hires permitted with the override money won’t be on board until fall of 2014, Sienkiewicz said, due to the lengthy examination and application process for new police officers.

But he noted that if qualified officers from other police departments apply, those vacancies may be filled sooner.

Before those positions are filled, some of the $188,000 added back into the police budget through the override will be used to pay for overtime or extra hours to cover the vacancies, Sienkiewicz said.

The next application exam for the police department is in October, Sienkiewicz said, but the department could also hire officers on the job in other cities and towns who may want to transfer to Northampton.

“We’re always looking for interested people to move here,” Sienkiewicz said. “We’re competing for a very small pool of candidates.”

To make joining the Northampton force more attractive, Sienkiewicz said, the department has expanded the types of degree programs that qualify for educational incentives that increase salaries under the so-called Quinn Bill beyond criminal justice programs.

Sienkiewicz said those incentives can increase an officer’s base pay depending on the type of degree and now include programs like psychology, sociology, computer science, forensics and others that can apply to modern police work.

“I strongly believe in an educated police force. So does the mayor,” Sienkiewicz said.

Sienkiewicz said the passage of the override should stabilize the police budget for at least the next three years, preventing layoffs.

According to the current police contract, starting base salary for officers is about $40,500.

As for the department’s newest hire, before joining the Northampton force, Graham was a full-time campus police officer at Mount Holyoke College and a part-time officer with the Russell Police Department.

Inquiries about job opportunities with the police department should be directed to Capt. Scott A. Savino.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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