'Burnt out': Belfield debates police merger with Stark County
The City of Belfield hosted a public input special meeting Thursday regarding the proposed collaboration between the Belfield Police Department and the Stark County Sheriff’s Office. Many citizens, city officials and personnel from both police departments deliberated their thoughts on this contentious issue.
Though smaller towns, like Belfield, are used to having its traditional Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, today’s world is growing toward mergers of police agencies across the nation as it is becoming a burnout for small town departments to keep up.
A group of citizens of Belfield addressed their concerns regarding the proposed merger of the Belfield Police Department and Stark County Sheriff’s Office at a special public meeting Thursday evening at the Belfield Theater. Belfield Police Chief Steve Byrne and Stark County Sheriff Corey Lee also provided their statements as to why this merger is beneficial in the long run. The contentious topic has been in public discussions since December .
“We are going through difficult items; it’s not just our police department or our city, it’s throughout the country. We’re doing our best to adapt to what has been presented to us and critically think about how to best serve the community moving forward,” Byrne said. “... Small town departments are just struggling to find manpower and burnout is a real thing in first responder careers. People will leave this job to take a break and then they’ll come back.”
Byrne works a consistent range of 50 to 60 hours per week with his right-hand man K-9 “Thor,” patrolling the town and trying to keep everyone safe. Working 24/7 and always on call, Byrne is not compensated for the extra amount of time he puts in each work week. In the past 12 months, there have been two violent crime incidents that occurred when Byrne was off duty.
“Folks, I’m in a vulnerable position, especially with the law enforcement stigma out there of keeping things bottled up inside and not showing weakness. But I’m screaming to you tonight that if I continue down this road, I’m going to burn out in the next year or two,” Byrne said, with a pause. “Let’s work together to not just look for tomorrow or the next month, but for the next 10 to 15 years. Please understand that if we give this a chance, I can continue to be a strong presence in this community for many years to come.”
One obstacle that remains for the Belfield Police Department is retention rate of officers, and it is being seen across southwestern law enforcement agencies such as witnessed by the Dickinson Police Department. Finding police officers with a clean record is getting harder to come by, Byrne added.
“In order for this to work, we all need to work together. In a town of approximately 800, we need 1,600 eyes watching out for one another. When someone sees something, please say something. If you’re looking for perfection right away, you’ll probably not be successful. If there are issues, we need to come to the table and have discussions on what we can do to improve,” Byrne said.
With the merger of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office, it will allow for more coverage and experienced deputies who can make better judgements and decisions on calls, Byrne noted.
Some of the expectations include a three-year contract, where year one is proposed at $208,000, year two at $213,000 and year three at $218,000.
One former schoolteacher addressed her concerns, “I think, we, the citizens of Belfield have the right and, all due respect to our citizens, to be able to have a local policeman as we have had forever.”
Locating viable police officer applicants is a challenging issue, another citizen said, adding, “... It’s not possible. We’re not getting applicants, they don’t want to come here to work, so you got to start looking forward… We have to let Steve be happy and do what he needs to do for himself.”
Since 2012, the Belfield Police Department has hired nine full-time officers and Byrne is the only one officer remaining. Part-time officers have depleted as they’ve taken on more responsibilities within their own agencies, Byrne said. With the merger, Byrne hopes to expand the K-9 program in Belfield and help put it on the map.
“I’m not a quitter by any means but understanding where your breaking point is and taking a step back to have fewer responsibilities to have time to make the connections that I want to keep strong is a major aspect for me in this merger with Stark County,” Byrne remarked.
The Belfield City Council will relook at this topic during its public meeting beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 9, at the Belfield Theater.