Cops can

Town officials say public safety not compromised

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

During an affordable housing forum earlier this month in Williston, Woodstock Police Chief Byron Kelly told the crowd that an expensive market hurts communities by locking out even the town’s own employees.

“A police officer who lives in the community where he works is a better police officer for it,” Kelly said.

Currently, the Williston Police Department includes few residents. Only two of the department’s 13 officers have Williston addresses, and both are renting. A few months ago, there were no Williston cops who lived here.

However, Williston Police Chief Ozzie Glidden downplays the impact of having so few officers residing in town.

“I don’t think it’s an issue at all,” Glidden said. “They’re going to enforce the law and try to do a good job regardless of whether they live in Williston.”

Glidden said the department rarely has had more than an officer or two living in Williston in recent years.

Some prefer to live elsewhere. For instance, Officer Scott Graham, a Monkton resident, said he likes “living out in the country.”

There are others, however, who would welcome a chance to buy a home in Williston. “It seems like a great place to live,” said Officer Brian Claffy. “I’d love for my child to go to Williston Central School, and it’s one of the safest towns around.”

The chief obstacle is simple: cost. Officer Jon Marcoux said most officers are not be able to afford a home in Williston. The current starting salary, excluding overtime wages, for a Williston police officer is $32,552. According to a report compiled by Town Planner Lee Nellis and a local housing consultant, a household needs to generate an annual income of approximately $77,000 to afford Williston’s median-priced home of $237,000.

Town Manager Rick McGuire notes the police officers are far from alone. He said many municipal employees live outside of town — some by preference, some by necessity.

In particular, he said, several of the town’s public works personnel do not live in Williston — an issue that arises when they need to travel to town and drive snowplows when winter weather strikes.

But McGuire smarts at the suggestion that having a residence outside of Williston might limit an employee’s commitment to the town.

“I don’t understand that idea,” said McGuire, who is a Williston resident. “These are professionals and they are very committed to their job and this community. I don’t see how where they lives matters one way or the other.”

Specifically, in the case of the police department, McGuire said the proximity of officers’ residences to town was more important in 1998, when a new police contract included the stipulation that officers reside within 25 miles of town.

McGuire said the requirement was included largely because Williston did not have 24-hour local police coverage at the time. So, if there were a major incident in Williston, an officer on call would rush to duty. The quicker he or she could arrive the better, McGuire said.

Today, Glidden said, the officers already on duty — typically, one or two officers on each shift — can handle the bulk of the calls.

“Officers are not called in an awful lot,” Glidden said. “They might be called in if the workload got really heavy on a shift or if there was a serious crime that required a significant investigation. Most of the time, though, it’s not necessary.”

If there were a large emergency that required a number of officers, Glidden said, Williston’s officers live close enough to town to report for duty quickly.

Glidden acknowledges having most officers living outside of town does hurt public perception of the police department.

“For instance, the firefighters are mostly Williston residents,” Glidden said. “When a fire department issue comes up, they’ve got a base of support. When an issue comes up with the police department, we don’t have that same support. We may very well have it if more officers lived here.”

Glidden said officers are sensitive to being viewed as outsiders without a stake in Williston. He said department attempts to cultivate relationships with residents to combat that notion.

“That’s one of the things we try to counter the most,” Glidden said. “The big thing we try to do is a lot of community policing. We try to have a close contact with the public to let them know who we are and that we do care about the community.”