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March 2, 2013

Questions after cops quit

SOUTH FORK — Since the simultaneous resignations of two officers constituting South Fork Borough’s police force, questions still hang – the most obvious being “why?”

South Fork police Chief Scott Stoltz told The Tribune-Democrat that his decision to leave was made amid concerns about new regulations affecting several facets of the department.

“(There were) too many changes, too quick,” said Stoltz. “South Fork has always had the flexibility for the police, because it’s a part-time department.”

Stoltz is referring to new limitations on scheduling and shifts that officers take on the side at neighboring departments.

A memorandum released by newly appointed Mayor Don Hudson in early February states that future schedules would be handed down. And, with a small, largely part-time force such as South Fork’s, anything that hinders the hunt for extra work could add undue financial burden.

“We all work other jobs and it would be very hard for someone to dictate our schedule,” he said. “You have to have other jobs to survive, because there’s not enough work there.”

Hudson, however, said he is willing to work with part-time officers – who make somewhere around $8 an hour for keeping the residents of South Fork safe – if they would like to moonlight elsewhere.

The borough police department may employ full-time positions, Stoltz explained, but that doesn’t mean South Fork is getting full-time policing.

And this year, one of the two full-time slots in the department was reduced to a part-time position.

Stoltz said he has concerns about a proposed scheduling system that doesn’t allow flexibility or take the community’s needs into account.

“As a police chief, my major concern was, ‘what are the high call volume times? When’s the most crime occurring?’ ” he said.

“It doesn’t matter when you schedule yourself – the criminal element will adapt. There’s really no way to fix that.”

Although he stressed this isn’t the only reason he chose to leave, the litany of new restrictions was an indicator that the department was going somewhere Stoltz couldn’t follow. He said he worries when “politics start becoming a big part of policing.”

Among the new policies:

• Officers will be prohibited from leaving the borough while on-duty (even for lunch), unless the situation calls for it.

“If they’re requested (to assist a nearby department), they can go,” said Hudson.

• Officers will not be allowed to work more than eight hours in one shift.

“I don’t think it benefits anyone working more than eight hours,” Hudson said. “(Officers can become) easily agitated and in a police job, you can’t have that.”

• Officers will provide traffic control for any funeral processions happening during their shift, as well as monitoring school bus pick-ups and drop-offs. South Fork employs only two school buses, which make a total of seven stops.

“It doesn’t hurt for public relations to talk to the kids or talk to the parents and observe what goes on at these school bus stops,” Hudson said.

• Officers will no longer wear black uniforms. Instead, they will switch to white shirts with badges slung on their belts in mid-April.

“They’re less intimidating,” Hudson said.

“People would be more apt to talk to them, rather than fear them.”

Stoltz said the switch to white uniforms – like many of the other specifics of Hudson’s new polices – doesn’t really concern him. It’s the micro-managing of the daily operations that he said he feels could cause problems.

“That’s his right to make any changes he wants to make,” Stoltz said. “It’s also my right to waive those options if I decide that’s not what’s best for me.”

Hudson told The Tribune-Democrat last week that he was not aware of a particular reason for the sudden resignations and that their simultaneity was not unusual.

Stoltz said, however, that the issues were discussed during a Feb. 18 Borough Council meeting, although he told council members his concerns were more wide-ranging.

“I didn’t want to single out any one reason,” he said. “It was a culmination of a lot of things.

“I bear no ill will towards South Fork,” he said. “It’s been an incredible experience for me and a great career move. I made a lot of friends in the community.”

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