By Barry Dalton
(This story appeared in the Aug. 6, 2020, issue of The Vandalia Leader.)
VANDALIA—Vandalia City Administrator Darren Berry says he plans to present a recommendation at a future board of aldermen’s meeting to replace the Vandalia police force due to the inability to maintain a fully staffed police force in Vandalia.
UPDATE: The Council Agenda for 5:30 p.m., Aug. 11, has “Audrain County & City of Vandalia Intergovernmental Agreement for Law Enforcement Services” listed under Motions.
In the past week, according to Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller, there have been two nights that Vandalia had no one on duty for the Vandalia Police Department.
“My office was notified and patrol deputies were advised accordingly and picked up that void,” Oller said. “The current climate will not make this better any time soon.”
A Vandalia police officer who preferred to remain anonymous confirmed the sheriff’s account but insisted it was the first time it had happened.
Contracting with the county to maintain public safety coverage of Vandalia would involve eliminating all of the city’s part-time and full-time police officer positions including the police chief. Berry says that Vandalia last reorganized its police force in August 2018 to include six full-time police officers. Currently there are only four officers working full time and a handful working part time. Berry says it’s been a struggle to keep the force fully staffed.
The contract that Berry is negotiating with the Audrain County Sheriff’s Department has not been finalized so specific details could not be discussed. But Berry says the plan will save Vandalia money in salary, benefits and insurance, ensure daily 24-7 police coverage of Vandalia and increase the number of safety officers available to respond to any large incidents.
Berry says he hopes to have the contract available Friday to send to the board. He says he has not discussed the plan with any of the aldermen yet but that all discussions with the board of aldermen will be transparent once the contract is finalized. The finalized contract must be approved by the board of alderman to take effect.
Details yet to be worked out include animal control and code violations. The city’s police vehicles and equipment would likely be absorbed into the sheriff’s department. Berry said the current police station would become a satellite office for deputies to use.
Berry says the agreement would include a set number of years, with automatic renewal and a two-year opt out clause in case Vandalia or the sheriff’s department are not happy with the arrangement.
Berry says the city has tried a number of strategies in the past to attract and maintain police officers but none were as successful as the arrangement the city had last year with the sheriff’s department. Last year, the sheriff’s department helped out Vandalia for about four months. Maintaining 24-7 coverage before and after the arrangement with the county has been a struggle, Berry says, and whenever there is a shortage of police officers, burnout becomes a concern.
“You don’t want officers burnt out,” Berry said.
Over the years, Vandalia has tried addressing the issue with pay raises, part-time officers and recruiting officers from outside of Vandalia, but none of that has solved the problem. Two years ago, salaries were raised $2 but officers can still get more money at the sheriff’s department or in bigger cities. Currently, none of the full- or part-time officers on the city’s police force live in Vandalia, according to city records.
“We went to the academies, thought maybe we could get help there and hire right out of the academy,” Berry said. “We hired a couple, but they don’t last long before they leave and go closer to home. We invest time and money to train an officer and before they’re even done or shortly after, they’re gone.”
The officer who spoke to the Vandalia Leader said that the city refuses to fund a recruit for the academy and has not done needed repairs at the police station.
“If the city depends upon the county, it loses all control of law enforcement,” the officer said. “If the city would invest in the department and its people, be more progressive with its shift rotations, the city could make it work. We have families to care for. It’s almost like they want it to fail.”