By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer
Monday’s meeting of the Berlin Mayor and Town Council ended with impassioned speeches from multiple people in the Berlin law enforcement community asking the town to take the retention of officers and competitive pay and benefits more seriously.
Former Berlin police officer and resident J.B. Bunting kicked off the topic, followed by fellow former officer and resident Michael Hickman, Christina Bireley, the spouse of a police officer, and Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing.
Downing called it a “simple thing” — if this is to be a priority, action must be taken soon.
“When you go ahead and say that we have people moving (on), the fact is they got better than what they got here,” Downing said through tears. “And I’m proud. But I want them to be here and be the next chief of police. No one has ever retired from this agency.
“Think about that and think about it again. It’s ridiculous. I will retire. I decided to stay here. At the sheriff’s office, put an application in my box, come. At Ocean City three years the same, ‘Come back to us.’ They want our best. And they’re coming for every one of us. They’d love to take the dog, and they’ve done that before. They’d love to take the detective and they surely don’t stay for the dollars.”
Bunting brought up Downing, especially, and a question he asked him early in his Berlin days.
Bunting explained that when he was hired in 2006, he told Downing, when asked where he sees himself in five years, it was to still be on the Berlin force. But he has since had to move on for better pay. Despite everyone wanting to work for Downing, having a great police station and state-of-the-art equipment, officers have to go.
“I would love to be able to afford to still work here,” Bunting said. “You guys need to do something.”
He, as well as others, made a plea for adding the Law Enforcement Officers Pension System, which the department currently does not offer to its officers.
It’s led to an exodus.
“If I’m not mistaken, since 2005 there have been 19 officers hired. Of those 19, six remain,” said Hickman. “Berlin has always been a stepping stone for larger agencies and I’d like to see that culture change.”
Hickman added that it’s an issue that requires urgency in its resolution because Berlin doesn’t simply hire officers off the street and put them in uniform the next day.
“Every time you put someone in the academy, you’re eight months away from having a viable officer performing patrol function on the street. Eight months. Six in the academy and two (spent) in field training,” he said.
“In my opinion, this is a critical issue. We aren’t that much different than Delmar. You have to think about that. What happened there (the 2021 death of Delmar Cpl. Keith Heacook) could very, very easily happen here in Berlin.”
Bireley piggybacked off of Hickman’s attention to the violence that local police departments have experienced in recent times, saying that she could not live with herself if she knew she didn’t try to influence change in Berlin in the aftermath of any scenario in which a Berlin officer is injured or killed.
“Many times (my husband) and the other officers are forced to work alone at night due to the staffing shortage,” she said. “Working alone not only exposes officers to greater risk but also presents a safety issue to all residents of Berlin.”
“How can Berlin expect to not only hire but retain certified police officers (without better pay and benefits) … May I ask with all the growth and annexation Berlin has had over the last 25 years, how does this make sense?”
Downing reminded the mayor and council that a well-staffed, engaged police force accentuates all the strong aspects of a community.
“You’re not going to have good schools. You’re not going to have a good business community. You’re not going have anyone wanting to be here or live here if they don’t feel safe,” he said. “The mantra is, play in Ocean City, work wherever you want to, but the bottom line is people want to live in Berlin. They want to be here.”
In response, Mayor Zack Tyndall thanked those who spoke and assured them that the council is looking at fixes for the situation.
One such quick fix could be redirecting $100,000 from the town’s reserve fund to police officer retention.
“It’s going to take all of us,” said Councilman Dean Burrell. “I’m talking this council and the folks who you represent sitting up here getting things done. All of us.”
Added Tyndall, “Because none of us want to see anything else bad happen to any of our officers. We’ll (work) on that.”
This story appears in the print version of the Bayside Gazette on July 14, 2022.