'We didn't have an officer at all to cover the city': Police chief talks staffing concerns
There are times Black Mountain has no police officer on staff.
That's according to town Police Chief Steve Parker, who presented the end of year report Feb. 14 at the Black Mountain Town Council meeting.
Parker emphasized the importance of training and retention above all else when it comes to the Black Mountain Police Department. He addressed challenges facing the department as well as implementing programs to ensure proper behavior.
The largest issue, according to Parker, continues to be staff retention. He said three officers should be on patrol at any given time, but it typically it ends up being two, due to training, vacation or officer vacancies.
"Over 45 times last year in six months, we didn't have an officer at all to cover the city, or we only had one officer," Parker said. "Some officers didn't have backup."
Parker said Black Mountain officers were in training for more than 69 weeks in 2021, accounting for some of the absences.
In a follow-up to the council meeting, Mayor Larry Harris said he believes the council will need to thoroughly look at officer staffing to ensure all shifts are adequately covered. He said the council must "make every effort" to address staffing all three shifts in the forthcoming budget for the 2023 fiscal year.
Parker said he plans to continue to remind the council of these concerns come budget season.
According to Harris, in the current budget year, Black Mountain added a position for an officer to focus on the downtown business area.
"The presence of an officer in our downtown is very important to our merchants, citizens and guests," Harris said via email.
Other issues concerning equipment, vehicles and body cameras for officers were among Parker's areas of focus for the upcoming budget.
"Our body cameras are no longer made and they're not incorporated with our in-car cameras," Parker said. "That's a big, big concern."
When an officer is in crisis, Parker said the last thing on their mind will be turning on a body cam. If the body cams were connected with the in-car cameras, as the new systems are, Parker said the cam would automatically turn on as officers exit their vehicles.
Parker said "it's definitely" in the plan for the upcoming budget to access body cameras that integrate with the in-car cameras.
In addition to cameras, Parker said the department's vehicle fleet could use an upgrade, reflecting a nationwide issue with vehicle access in law enforcement.
The chief also presented annual crime statistics in the end of year report. The statistics were spread over a three-year period and divided into violent crimes — armed robbery, murder and assault — and property crimes such as burglaries, collisions and larceny.
Remaining more or less constant over the past three years, Black Mountain saw just six violent crimes in 2021.
Meanwhile, property crimes increased by 60%, with a 184% increase in collisions in the past two years, from 74 to 209.
Parker attributed these increases to the pandemic, saying he's witnessed an increase in narcotic-related incidents which often impacts property crimes. Although the town's numbers haven't shown an increase in narcotics incidents, Parker said due to staffing issues, the department hasn't been as proactive in making arrests but has seen multiple overdoses and Narcan saves.
"Narcotics issues are like I've never seen them before," Parker told the Town Council.
The new chief aims to implement a new policy through Benchmark Management System, a way to hold officers accountable to management should they receive complaints or be reported for excessive use of force. Although such a program typically takes 14 months to implement, Parker aims to have it done in two.
The system tracks officer behavior. For example, Parker said, if an officer receives multiple complaints, the officer will be flagged and the chief will be notified so he can determine if additional training or proactive measures will be necessary.
"What it's doing is making sure we're upholding a professional agency and looking early on to make sure before somebody might have an incident or an altercation," Parker said.
In his report, Parker mentioned the police department received a grant for $23,475 to go toward SWAT equipment. He said this grant funded ballistic helmets, radio earpieces and gas masks.
According to Parker, any department that has a SWAT team would want to have all of this equipment.
The chief reiterated emphasis on retaining officers as he concluded his report. He said Black Mountain is no different than any other agency in having staffing issues. As the new chief, Parker aims to create a solid foundation for his department so the officers trust him as their leader.
Overall, Parker said said the department has "above board morale."
"My thanks to Chief Parker for his work and that of his officers," Harris said in a statement. "I am in full support of staffing and providing what we need to keep our citizens and officers safe."
Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.