Sparta council agrees to increase size of police force

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    SPARTA-It comes with the turf; 37 square-miles in Sparta that the police chief knows very well. "Everything is subjective," Ernie Reigstad said. "If you get pulled over for a traffic violation, there are too many cops. And if you need an ambulance, there are not enough cops." So, Reigstad doesn't expect public opinion to change much in light of the township council's decision to increase the size of the Sparta Police Department by two officers. Reigstad was given approval to hire the additional officers, who will join the department in the next couple of months along with two recruits currently in training at the state academy. The police department will then be at full strength with 39 officers. "This enables us to catch up to where we need to be with personnel," said the police chief. "The additional personnel is necessary for the services that the community expects and deserves." Township manager Henry Underhill said the annual salary for an entry-level patrol officer is $32,000. He said an advanced officer is scheduled to retire this year, thereby reducing the department's payroll by around $65,000. Additional savings will come from Sussex County Technical School, which has agreed to defray the cost of a Sparta officer assigned to patrol the campus during class hours. Reigstad said the size of the police department has not kept pace with an increase in the township's population the past 15 years. He said policing the township has also been affected by an even greater rate of residential growth in all of Sussex County and nearby eastern Pennsylvania. "We've grown conservatively over the years, spreading us pretty thin," said Reigstad, who operated with as few as 33 officers as recently as January. "It's had a negative effect on our patrol response time." Reigstad supported his request for additional officers with results from an internal study conducted last year that identified staffing needs based on guidelines recommended by the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, and Bureau of Justice Statistics. "I was hesitant to increase the staff at first," said councilman Wayne Ring. "But, the chief laid out the reasons to increase the force." The police chief said the time devoted to patrols has dropped from 35 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2004, well below the 33 percent recommended by federal enforcement agencies. Calls for assistance into the department increased by 63 percent, from 13,208 in 1990 to 21,634 in 2004, and officers logged 286,000 patrol miles in 1990 compared to more than 450,000 in 2004, said Reigstad. "We are behind in our ability to be proactive in our patrols and traffic enforcement," said the chief. "When we're not on patrol making stops in the neighborhoods, that's when there will be an increase in drug activity." The department made more than 500 heroine arrests alone last year and gang activity has become noticeable within the county, according to Reigstad. Unlike departments of comparable population in Morris, Bergen, or Essex counties, Sparta cannot count on smaller units in Ogdensburg, Andover, Byram and Jefferson to provide adequate mutual assistance. "We're on our own," said Reigstad. "There aren't too many towns that can compare to us in geographic size, either, so we wind up having to truck back and forth across town." Reigstad said most people forget that a police department operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He noted that administrative, supervisory and training activities, as well as court appearances, reduces the number of patrols in the municipality at certain times to as few as five. Sparta is 37 square-miles and an estimated population of 19,600. "We want to be able to balance some community policing into our work besides talking to people when issuing a speeding ticket," said Reigstad. "Talking to people speaks volumes. It's amazing what people will tell us when we talk to them. It's good to have citizen contact. We want to be able to pull down our windows and get out of the car, but we've never had the time to do it."