Honesdale police woes carry into 2021

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 1/6/21

HONESDALE, PA — In the months bridging late 2019 to early 2020, the people of Honesdale were atwitter over the topic of police coverage and their municipality’s lack of it. Distressed …

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Honesdale police woes carry into 2021

Posted

HONESDALE, PA — In the months bridging late 2019 to early 2020, the people of Honesdale were atwitter over the topic of police coverage and their municipality’s lack of it. Distressed with the knowledge that the local police department had too few officers to provide 24/7 coverage, residents routinely pleaded with the councilors—who were, at the time, drafting the 2020 budget—to find the cash needed to beef up the force. Council president Mike Augello’s stock response was that hiring more police would mean raising people’s taxes even higher than they were already slated to go. To that, locals would often say that it would be a price they were willing to pay.

The Honesdale Police Department once had nine full-time officers. Now there are only three, not including one who remains employed but off-duty due to an injury. The borough has typically leaned on a pool of part-timers to help fill in the gaps, but recent red tape from the state, among other challenges, has made that more complicated.

“Out of 21 shifts per week we could be working, we’re probably working 10,” Honesdale Police Chief Richard Southerton said.

The year 2020 passed and no additional officers, part-timers nor full-timers, ended up getting hired. Over the past several months, as the Honesdale Borough Council drafted its budget for 2021, the police department has been as understaffed as ever and the budget once again makes no room for new officers. Yet, this time, there is no chorus of concerned residents sounding any alarms.

The reason for the attitude shift is unclear. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted or drained people’s attention from the issue, or maybe Honesdalians simply moved on, noticing that Main Street is not exactly overrun with crime and mischief. 

Either way, the issue has remained at the forefront of the police chief’s mind.

Southerton has been advocating for more officers for years now, but he’s often felt that his voice is falling on deaf ears. The feeling has been harder to shake after a recent incident.

Throughout 2020, the borough’s Civil Service Commission has been going through the lengthy process of developing something known as a civil service list—a group of candidates applying to join the police department. (Though the borough did not allocate money to hire any officers, it did allocate around $12,000 to create a list of candidates—an action that one councilor unsuccessfully tried to reverse.) To get on the list, candidates must complete an agility test in front of the police chief and a representative from the Civil Service Commission. Two candidates were scheduled to complete this test in December. But as Southerton waited at the given time and location, both candidates were no-shows, and no one from civil service ever arrived.

“I still, to this point, do not know what happened,” Southerton said. He asked for an explanation at the most recent civil service meeting and was told that it basically must have been some kind of miscommunication. He was also assured that the candidates were informed about where and when to go. The mixup was another in a long string of frustrations for Southerton.

For starters, having just two candidates in the running is a notably slim lot. As Augello once described at a meeting, a civil service list typically involves a group of 10 and the borough chooses from the top three. Southerton thinks the borough is looking like a less attractive option for aspiring officers.

“If I were somebody looking to get on a list... why am I going to go through getting on a list when [the borough doesn’t] even have any money in the budget to hire next year?” Southerton said. “There’s no money to even hire more part-time officers.”

The fact that money isn’t specifically allocated to hire officers doesn’t mean it would be impossible to do, but it might not look promising to potential candidates.

In the past, the borough could hire part-timers more easily and quickly than it could full-timers. Those days are likely over, however, thanks to a PA Supreme Court Case in 2019 that ruled that part-time officers must get the same civil service protections as full-timers. Honesdale’s labor attorneys say that means, legally, it’s safest to hire through the drawn-out civil service list process. 

Barring any surprise funding reallocations from the council, providing full-time coverage is off the table for the local department. But other restrictions have meant recently that even when officers are on duty, they might not be able to leave the station.

“I have full-time officers [who] have no partners to work with; right now, the policy is [this]: If there aren’t two people on, they can’t go out and patrol,” Southerton said. “So on top of being short to start with... we’ve got guys working [who] can’t go out.”

There is one councilor, Robert Jennings, who is outspoken in his support for more police officers. He’s tried multiple times to convince fellow councilors to bite the bullet and make the necessary tax hikes for full-time law enforcement coverage. As he found out from his most recent attempt last November, however, the topic is not up for discussion. Jennings moved to include funds in the 2021 budget to allow for the hiring of four new, full-time officers. Gaining no second, the motion died with no vote taken.

Jennings cited a break-in at a downtown business last Labor Day as one of the reasons for his concern. When Gina Pritchard, owner of the store, called for help from the police, neither local officers nor state troopers were able to come.

Pritchard shared her concerns at the next borough council meeting, where Augello told her that he sympathized with her, but that this was an issue the council had no immediate solutions to.

“It’s not forgotten by any stretch, it’s just that we don’t know what to do to make it that much better,” he said.

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