Several impending retirements and a lack of staffing are threatening the Westchester County Department of Public Safety to cut back from various specialized units, according to the union president.
Micahel Hagan, the president of the county Police Benevolent Association, PBA, said that with an understaffed department and as many as 10 retirements expected in each calendar year—four officers have already retired since the beginning of 2017—police officials are anticipating withdrawing officers from the bomb squad, narcotics and joint terrorist task force units to cover routine patrols throughout the county this summer.
Hagan added that while this year’s $1.8 billion county budget calls for funding 292 police officers, there is currently no indication from County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, whether or not there will be any action to hire more positions to meet the needs of the department, prompting the potential cut-backs in the specialized units.
The department currently employs 282 officers as part of a $16.4 million county police budget; part of a larger Department of Public Safety budget totaling $48.2 million.
Yet, even after adding five officers in March, the department still remains 10 positions short of its budgeted staff size.
As a result, Hagan said it will be difficult to continue assigning officers to specialized units when routine patrols will be needed at various parks—there are 52 parks that are managed by the county—throughout Westchester, such as Willson’s Woods Park in the city of Mount Vernon, where a suspect was arrested in April with a loaded gun and was allegedly involved in drug activity.
According to county Legislator Ben Boykin, a White Plains Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety & Social Services, the looming cuts to the narcotics unit will pose an abundance of consequences to Westchester, which has seen opioid-related deaths increase by 60 percent this year over last year. “All too often, officers are pulled from their regular assignments to cover incidents that take place in our parks,” he said.
Westchester County police are responsible for watching over county-owned parks, local parkways, key county facilities such as the Westchester County Airport in Harrison, and the county office building in White Plains. The department is also known for aiding local municipal police departments.
Boykin added that the cuts could place an additional burden on other local police departments that will likely be called because of the lengthy response times by county units.
Other Democrats, such as county Majority Leader Catherine Borgia, of Ossining, and Legislator MaryJane Shimsky, of Hastings-on-Hudson, described the situation as a public safety threat to residents.
“We are in a situation where we have officers leaving their posts on our parkways to cover issues in our parks,” Shimsky said. “This, by definition, creates a public safety hazard every time they are asked to do their job. This is unacceptable.”
Despite the concern, Ned McCormack, the communications director for the county executive’s office, said overall crime in Westchester is down 25 percent for the latest five-year reporting period.
“Vacancies fluctuate over the course of any year,” he added. “The current vacancy rate of 3 percent is normal, very manageable and provides adequate staffing for the department to fulfill its responsibilities.”