By James A. Kimble
Police departments across Southern New Hampshire are hoping to increase or replenish their ranks by applying for a new round of federal stimulus money.
The funding is coming from $1 billion recently appropriated for the COPS Hiring Recovery Program, which was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Local towns first got this kind of federal backing when the COPS grants were established by former President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. For those who were hired by those grants, the economic circumstances and dire job market seem remarkably similar to those today.
Pelham police Chief Joseph Roark was one of those new hires.
"I had graduated college in the early '90s and the job market was very poor," he said. "When the COPS grants started ... it opened a lot of police jobs that were previously not available. It's had a lasting impact on towns who wanted to buy into the community-based policing."
The grants helped efforts such as school resource officers, bike patrols and specialized beats, Roark said. He now wants to increase his 19-member department by one so he can add a school resource officer.
The town has tried to add a school resource officer for four years, but voters have rejected the proposal. Just last month, voters rejected spending $54,100 to "hire and equip" a school resource officer, 1,348-1,449.
The departments that win the latest round of grants get full funding for three years. But towns must commit to keeping the officer a fourth year. That's prompted towns like Salem and Plaistow to get selectmen's approval before applying.
Salem police Capt. Shawn Patten, the first Salem officer hired under a COPS grant, said he remembered being one of 300 people applying for two to three new spots on the force.
"There were hundreds and hundreds of people attending the police test when I was there," he said. "After that, we were lucky to get 50 to 60 (applicants) to show."
Salem might apply for two more positions if selectmen approve the application. Plaistow is hoping to apply for one officer.
Many town officials have been loathe to spend much outside of the bare necessities in order to keep tax rates down.
In Windham, selectmen panned the idea of applying for the grants because they were uncertain when the economy could turn around, police Chief Gerald Lewis said.
"You can always use more help," Lewis said. "But, as I explained to them, we are holding our own."
Sandown police Chief Joseph Gordon likewise decided not to apply for a new position after attending a meeting in Concord detailing federal stimulus money.
Salem and Plaistow selectmen are due to make their decisions tomorrow.
Salem Town Manager Jonathan Sistare described the grants as a good deal, one of the best since Clinton first established the program.
"In this case, it seems very favorable," he said. "You're getting a three-for-one deal. The other thing we would look at is when we get beyond the grant, we have to ask whether it would be something burdensome for the town."
Sistare said he doesn't think a poor economy would play a role in the decision, given that people are hoping for an economic turnaround by the time the four-year contracts expire.
But the current state of municipal budgets is expected to make the application process very competitive.
"I imagine there are a lot of people who are going to be applying, especially with layoffs (at departments)," Newton police Chief Larry Streeter said.
He hopes to increase his department from five to six. Voters have turned down a request to fund a full-time officer for the last two years, while he said Newton has grown in nearly every area by about 20 percent.
Newton hasn't added a police officer to its ranks since 1996. The five-person department essentially has three full-time people and one part-time person who can investigate nearly 460 cases a year, he said.
A similar story has played out in Hampstead, where voters panned a plan to add two officers for two years running.
Hampstead police Lt. John Frasier said the department would like to add officers to the overnight shift. The town, with a population of 10,000, only has one officer on duty during that time.
"And they keep building," Frasier said of development in recent years. "We have five banks in town now and more strip malls coming in with one cop at night. That's not much protection."
Hampstead last hired an officer about five years ago, when voters agreed to add a full-time detective to the force.
But not everyone is looking to swell their ranks.
In Kingston, where selectmen instituted a hiring freeze, police Chief Donald Briggs is hoping to maintain the nine-member force he has after losing a full-time officer to the Eliot, Maine, Police Department. Briggs added three officers to the department under the COPS program in the 1990s, one dedicated to schools and two others for the street.
"For a small community, it's very helpful to get the seed money," Briggs said. "It was essential to reducing crime and answering an increase in the number of calls we have."
The deadline for applications is April 15. Roark said departments may find out within 90 days whether they receive the funding.