By Barry Dalton
VANDALIA—Vandalia City Administrator Darren Berry says he plans to present a recommendation at the next board of aldermen’s meeting to replace the Vandalia police force.
This would involve eliminating all of the city’s part-time and full-time police officer positions, including the police chief.
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 said the plan will save Vandalia money in salary, benefits and insurance, while ensuring 24-7 police coverage of Vandalia. It would also increase the number of safety officers available to respond to any large incidents.
Berry said he hopes to have the contract available Friday to send to the board. He added that he has not discussed the plan with any of the aldermen yet but that all discussions with the board of aldermen would be transparent once the contract is finalized. The finalized contract must be approved by the board of alderman to take effect.
Berry said 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 said it’s been a struggle to keep the force fully staffed.
Details yet to be worked out include animal control and code violations, although code violations could become the responsibility of the city’s community development staff, Berry explained. The city’s police vehicles and equipment would likely be absorbed into the sheriff’s department. Berry said sheriff’s deputies would likely use the current police station as a satellite office.
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 added that 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 noted, 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 investments in training, cars and equipment, but none of that has solved the problem. Two years ago, salaries were raised $2 an hour, but officers can still get more money at the sheriff’s department or in bigger cities.
“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.”