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Police finally make good on provincial decree to expand staffing levels

Timothy Schafer
By Timothy Schafer
August 8th, 2017

More than two-and-a-half years after it began the dispute over extra staffing for the city’s police force has culminated in its eighteenth member.

The Nelson Police Department has added its newest recruit, Const. Lauren Mirva, in the position created last year when the provincial Police Services directed city council to fund one additional sworn officer and a civilian position.

And with the swearing in of two new officers — Const. Andrew Hildred from Saanich Police and Const. Rob Armstrong, who recently retired from the Toronto Police Service — the NPD will have, for the first time in its history, eighteen officers. 

And the additional NPD member is welcomed, said NPD chief constable Paul Burkart.

“We are an extremely busy police department,” he said. “We are always among the top two or three for criminal code charges per member among the municipal police departments.”

Last year Nelson dispatchers answered 18,000 telephone calls, 3,100 911 calls, which included about 1,500 911 for the city police department alone. 

The NPD also looked after 870 prisoners in its cells, including almost 300 of its own arrests, and answered 6,300 calls for service in 2016.

To put it into perspective, Oak Bay and Central Saanich police departments, the next two smallest police departments in the province both of whom have 24 police officers, had about 4,300 calls for service each. 

“So our police officers are answering 30 per cent more calls with 30 per cent less staff,” Burkart said.

But the pressures on the NPD continue to mount, despite the additional bodies. Last year and the beginning of this year was very hard on the department for injuries with members off injured for 597 days last year, which is equivalent to one and three quarters positions.

“With injured police members, it makes it very hard to staff shifts unless members are pulled from other positions or come in on overtime,” Burkart said. 

“One of the first positions to be pulled from is the beat officer position and we certainly saw this over the past year.”

When the NPD is short staffed members have to work short-handed or work extra shifts to cover for those that are injured.

“And our community is not receiving a proper level of service … and we have seen that in our downtown core this past four or five months,” said Burkart.

The NPD still have one officer off injured and he will be off until 2018. 

“This was the result of an apprehension of a mental health client, which is unfortunately too common of an occurrence for policing departments,” said Burkart. 

About two thirds of injuries to NPD members occur with interactions with individuals with mental health concerns.

While in the past the NPD would normally be running short with an injured member it will not be doing so this summer.

“This past month we hired Const. Armstrong who had moved to the area and will be working on a temporary basis with the department,” said Burkart.

Const. Armstrong will be filling in for the injured member from June until the end of September — which is typically the NPD’s busiest time of the year.

“With this part-time temporary member we will not be running short and will not be required to pull the beat officer from the downtown to cover for our patrol units,” said Burkart.

The 18th NPD member hiring was the second big development for the department in the last nine months. Last December the police union reached a deal with the city, with the Nelson Police Association (NPA) members voting to accept the proposed contract on Dec. 6, ending a reign of almost four years without a contract for the NPA.

The new contract added some new benefits for the members of the NPA, including recognition of Family Day as a provincial statutory holiday and slightly increased pay for specialty work (training new officers). NPA president Brian Weber said that in exchange for the additions, there was an agreement to reduce the sick day “banks” and retirement benefits.

Negotiations began in earnest in August of 2016, with the intent of not letting the negotiations “drag on,” said Weber. But it took almost three years for the two sides to finally sit down. The new police contract will expire at the end of 2019.

In 2015 the Nelson Police board asked for an increase, one which was denied by council and was subsequently appealed by the board, landing on the desk of the provincial director of Police Services that ruled in favour of an increase.

This year the annual provisional budget request topped the $3 million mark for the first time at $3,178,291. The actual increase in the budget request over last year is approximately $253,763, or 8.7 per cent and includes the increase of one sworn member, one civilian member and an anticipated general salary increase, as well as funding for the restorative justice coordinator.

Front counter cuts

The department will also be reducing its front counter presence in an attempt to free up more time for its civilian support.

As of Aug. 15, the NPD will be reducing its hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and holidays.

“As well, we have implemented a telephone answering tree and will be reducing our front counter hours at the department,” said Burkart. “With our department receiving 18,000 calls per year, we have been able to divert about 40 per cent of calls to the appropriate department without having the calls answered by our front counter staff.”

The overall move is expected to free up time for NPD civilian members to complete other tasks.

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