Opinion - Saratoga Springs Politics

The below blog posts are written by John Kaufmann.
These opinions do not reflect the views of Saratoga TODAY newspaper.

Tuesday, 12 July 2022 08:48

An Exchange Between Chris Mathiesen and Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino Over the Condition of the Saratoga Springs Police Department

By John Kaufmann | Saratoga Springs Politics

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[JK: The following is an exchange between former Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and Montagnino prompted by Mathiesen’s recent email to the City Council.]

This is a link to the original Mathiesen email:

Former Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen Calls Police Department Situation a Crisis

The Subsequent Emails:

From Montagnino

Dr. Mathiesen:

To say that there are 20 “unfilled slots” is a little inaccurate. Full staffing, as you know, is 80 sworn officers. From that number must be deducted seven who are currently in the Academy and therefore unavailable for actual service, on duty, for the City. From that number must also be deducted an additional five who will be starting training at the Academy later this month. Thus, 80 is reduced by 12 to 68. Of those, one has been on disability for years but yet continues on our books. That reduces the “net” number to 67. One of our officers is on “loan” to a DEA task force and has been for several years. That reduces the “net” number to 66. Another officer is currently assigned to the Police Academy as an instructor. That reduces our “net” number to 65. Just this week, an officer returned to service after a lengthy period of reserve military deployment. His absence from service here in the City had reduced our “net” number to 64. We have an officer out on Family Medical Leave. That reduces our “net” number to 63. We have only three or four truly “unfilled” slots at the present time. 

The seven officers in the Academy will be graduating on August 4. They will each be assigned a Field Training Officer and will be on duty from that point forward. There is no “public safety emergency” nor is one expected. (As an aside, you suggest closing the bars at 2 am.  Please note that the Memorandum of Agreement signed by Gaffney’s, the City’s largest bar, as a condition of their re-opening, bears my signature as well. That Memorandum is incorporated by reference into Gaffney’s Chapter 136 license and requires them to close their doors at 1:30 am.)

As to the 12-hour shifts, these were adopted by the previous administration despite an exhaustive federal study highly critical of such long work hours. Particularly where overtime shifts run to 16 hours and can run back-to-back-to-back with only eight hours off between shifts, the present system is an invitation to danger from fatigue.

I turn to your questions regarding recent retirements and resignations. Much has changed in recent years regarding public perceptions of law enforcement. Nationwide, police departments at the local, county and State levels have seen record numbers of retirements and resignations. Simultaneously, applications are drastically diminished in numbers. This nationwide phenomenon is occurring here in the Capital Region as well. Albany, for example, lost 90 (yes, ninety) police officers in 2021. Every department in this area is suffering from a diminution in its ranks.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, our Police Officers are the lowest-paid in the area.  When you couple this with the fact that every other police department is short of officers, it is no surprise that officers leave for better pay. Indeed, in the last week a recruit who had been given a conditional offer of employment with SSPD informed us that he had accepted a position with the Saratoga County Sheriff because their pay scale is significantly better.

In addition to our low pay scale, we were unable to attract lateral transfers because, until July 5, we were hamstrung by a policy under which an officer joining SSPD was required to start at the base level of pay, irrespective of how many years’ experience that officer may have had. Thanks to the City Council’s unanimous approval of a Memorandum of Agreement with the PBA offering pay scale commensurate with years of service to laterals, we expect to be able to attract experienced officers from other departments. However, as long as SSPD remains the worst-paid department in the area, the likelihood of our being able to attract qualified, desirable transferees remains small.

The proposed MOA would increase the attractiveness of service with SSPD. This would help us retain officers as well as recruit officers. It would allow us to be more selective as well. It would also offer the opportunity to “cast the net wider” in order to attract a more diverse pool of new officers. (You are no doubt aware of the fact that SSPD has only one Officer of color, and he was sworn in more than 18 years ago. how is this situation acceptable?)

A close examination of the proposed MOA also demonstrates that there is a significant increase in shift differentials. This is no accident; this is by design. The goal here is to incentivize senior officers to bid for the “off shifts.” As I pointed out at the last City Council meeting, the eight officers involved in the Akron shooting of Jayland Walker were working the midnight shift and their average time-in-service was two and one-half years. The senior officer involved had only six years in service. The least experienced officers should not be the only ones on duty during the most dangerous periods of the night.

On a final note, I would point out that there is something fundamentally unsettling in the fact that the overwhelming majority of our Police Officers cannot afford to live in the City they serve. This wasn’t always the case. Less than a generation ago, City residence was a requirement of service with SSPD and yet the number of applicants far exceeded the number of positions available. Today, however, at a starting salary of $50K, how can a Saratoga Springs Police Officer dream of buying even a starter home in this City?  Nancy and I bought our first house in Saratoga Springs in 2002 for $110K. The seller had paid $90K only three years before. That house is now on the market for $300K. Is it any wonder one of our Officers recently left to take a position with the Warren County Sheriff when that position pays more money in a county with a significantly lower cost of living?

Dr. Mathiesen, I take you at your word when you say that you are offering constructive criticism. I ask you to consider the fact that, if we take the federal government’s inflation figures as accurate, the Collective Bargaining Agreement under which SSPD Officers are now serving has their annual cost-of-living increases of 2% outpaced by a factor of four. I ask you to consider the fact that the cost of housing in our City has increased at an unprecedented rate. I ask you to consider the fact that law enforcement — once considered among the most honorable professions — is now under enormous societal pressures. I ask you to consider the fact that our SSPD Officers are currently paid less than any other police officers in the area.  I ask you whether our City deserves to keep the best people in our uniformed services. And then I ask you how we can not honor the good-faith request of the men and women of our PBA who seek a slightly better quality of working life and a little bit better remuneration.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Jim Jim Montagnino

From Mathiesen

Commissioner,

I don’t disagree with many of the points that you have made in your reply.  

I am happy to hear that we are no really down 20 slots in the department as was stated by the PBA reps.  It would have been a good idea to clarify that information at that time.

Of course we want the police to be adequately paid and of course we would like to be as successful bringing ethic and racial diversity to the department as we have been in bringing gender diversity to all levels of the department.  I strongly advocated for higher starting pay for our officers when I was Commissioner for many of the same reasons that you cite.  And yes, the pandemic and the current social climate has had an effect on recruitment and retention in departments across the country.  Other than the failure of City officials to more adamantly counter the outrageous claims over the past two years that our police murdered Darryl Mount, what sets our department apart from others?  Why is our department losing members to other departments when that has not been the case in the past?   Yes, the cost of housing in certain parts of Saratoga Springs has increased significantly but this is not true city-wide.  Also, there have been more workforce housing units constructed in recent years just for individuals in the early stages of their careers such as police, nurses and teachers.  Also, during my administration, very few members of our police force actually lived within the City limits for a variety of reasons (only one of which was the cost of housing).   That’s true of officers in many other departments.

Don’t we need to know why the rate of pay in Saratoga Springs is suddenly no longer competitive?  It would be a great idea to provide an analysis of the salary scale of other area departments and then see what needs to be done to adapt a more adequate set of salaries for our officers and investigators.

Chris Mathiesen

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