Police force to stay at 6 officers

A Canton police vehicle exits the municipal parking lot on Main Street. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — The village police force will maintain a staff of six patrol officers after absorbing Canton Central School District’s school resource officer last year.

During its regular monthly meeting Wednesday night, the village Board of Trustees approved a proposal from Police Chief James R. Santimaw with recommended approval from the board’s Public Safety Committee.

Canton Central had previously contracted with the village for a school resource officer, or SRO, since 2018, but during last spring’s district budgeting process for the 2020-21 year, cost-saving cuts included the elimination of the SRO.

The district historically reimbursed the village for the SRO’s full salary and benefits, a rough total of $100,000 for 2020-21, according to the district calculation of combined savings from defunded positions.

Village Trustee Anna M. Sorensen, who serves on the Public Safety Committee with Trustee Elizabeth R. Larrabee, said the board agreed to fund the sixth patrol as an addition to the village force for the year, with the understanding that a retirement would soon be processed. Three sergeants and the chief bring the department to 10 people.

Though a retirement is still anticipated, Ms. Sorensen said, Chief Santimaw’s proposal was “compelling.”

“Having the sixth officer position made permanent cuts down significantly on overtime,” she said. “That’s a fiscal savings to the village and to the taxpayers, but I think even more so, it’s pretty important to the work-life balance of our officers — in terms of avoiding burnout, in terms of being able to have the time off that is needed in order to do a good job.”

Through the process of responding to state Executive Order 203, Ms. Sorensen added, the Public Safety Committee and community participants recommended 18 steps to facilitate a better serving department. The order was based on state racial and social justice legislation following the killing of George P. Floyd in Minneapolis. Canton’s policy evaluations in part led the committee to recommend additional officer trainings, which would increase overtime potential, Ms. Sorensen said.

For officer wellbeing, as outlined by recommendation 15, the department is expected to “make efforts to normalize officers’ use of confidential mental health services and substance abuse and addiction services by communicating that such services are available.”

Recommendation 16 further emphasizes the importance of officer mental health, requesting the department create a critical incident debrief policy to support and assess officers after a major incident.

“Mental health and time off is really big,” Mrs. Larrabee said. “It’s a stressful job, and it’s been even that much more stressful in the past year, year-and-a-half.”

A related proposal from the department would adjust scheduling and establish 12-hour workdays from the current 8-hour standard. The change would increase weekend shift flexibility and generally require each officer to work every other weekend, as opposed to every weekend, Chief Santimaw said.

“There is a way that the reabsorption of the SRO position and our being at an increased staffing level has provided us an opportunity to see the benefits to the village and the department,” Ms. Sorensen said.

The board voted in favor of maintaining an officer roster of six, and the shift proposal is still being considered with more information expected by the village’s July meeting.

For the first time in more than a year, the board held its regular monthly meeting in the basement courtroom of the Municipal Building this week. Both the town and village have been operating over Zoom since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and are continuing to offer a Zoom option for remote public participation.

The village’s next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21.

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