By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A state regional policing grant on its way here has reignited the debate over whether Haverhill has enough to officers to adequately cover its 35 square miles of densely-packed urban areas and sprawling rural outskirts.
State Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, announced last week Haverhill has received $69,000 from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety & Security for larger departments to spur regional policing efforts.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he wants to use the money to hire another police officer, but that he’s not sure whether it can be used for that purpose.
“Our long term goal is to add to the force,” the mayor said. “But it is not yet clear if we can use this grant for that purpose. If not, we will use it for increased patrols in high crime areas.”
Haverhill’s police budget and staffing in particular has been a heated topic of debate in recent months among the patrolmen’s union, police Chief Alan DeNaro and the mayor’s office. The city’s has around 90 officers and 61,000 residents — one of the lowest officer-to-resident ratios in the region.
Back in May, representatives of the patrolman’s union said the force lacks the manpower to prevent and investigate crimes effectively and that officers have been relegated mainly to responding to calls for service and help. As a result of the low staffing, unions officials said officers are overworked and have low morale.
DeNaro responded to the union’s claims by saying that indeed there are fewer officers than he would like, but that the city is adequately protected. He said regional policing agreements with Haverhill’s neighbors augment the city’s own public safety resources.
In a written statement yesterday, the patrolmen’s union said it “stands firm in its opinion that the department is well understaffed.”
“But let’s be clear that this grant is a positive thing for the entire city,” the statement from the union said. “We only hope that the mayor continues to follow the path that Rep. Dempsey has laid before him.”
“After meeting with Rep. Dempsey earlier this year regarding our staffing levels, it seems he clearly understood our needs for the safety of both the community and our fellow officers,” the police statement said.
Patrolman Rick Welch, vice president of the union, credited the mayor with hiring three additional officers in recent months, but he also noted the same number of officers are currently out of action due to work-related injuries. That means there are the same number of officers on the job today as there were last spring when the union raised concerns about low staffing levels, he said.
Also last May, the patrolmen’s union claimed the mayor cut the police budget by $200,000 around the same time the department received $357,382 from the trust of a former resident, the late Elmo D’Alessandro. The money was given under the condition that it be used exclusively for law enforcement.
The mayor denied the allegation at the time, and DeNaro said later that the D’Alessandro money would not be used to supplement the police budget.
More recently, the mayor said the city was saving the D’Alessandro money for the right project and that one possibility is using it to establish a police maintenance garage at the Public Works property on Primrose Street.
Police vehicles are currently maintained at space the city leases at the private Kazmiera Marina on Coffin Avenue next to the Merrimack River.
Fiorentini said he was unable to provide an update on the D’Alessandro money in time for this story.
As for the regional policing grant, Dempsey said eligibility for the program was determined by factors including a municipality’s crime rate, the number of calls for service per capita, the percent of staff positions that are currently unfunded and the percent of the police department’s budget that has been lost since 2009.
“The purpose is to offset the impact of potential funding cuts that came about as a result of the worldwide economic crisis that had great impacts on state and municipal budgets,” Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a press release. “These funds will provide direct assistance to local law enforcement to promote regional efficiencies and enhanced crime-management techniques.”