With another police officer set to retire, the Southold Town Police Department will soon be down to just 43 members — its smallest squad in at least 10 years.
Although the department has been authorized by the Town Board to employ as many as 52 officers, no new hires have been made in the past two years while the town and the police union have struggled to hammer out a new contract for officers.
Supervisor Scott Russell said the negotiations have gone to an arbitrator, who has yet to file a decision.
Mr. Russell said the Town Board has budgeted for five new officers, to be hired once a contract agreement is reached.
“We are looking to rehire as soon as possible,” he said.
Mr. Russell wouldn’t comment on the negotiations or the issues on which the union and the town disagree.
Southold Police Benevolent Association president Rick Buonaiuto — a member of the negotiating team — couldn’t be reached for comment by presstime.
Police Chief Martin Flatley said in an interview that the proposed infusion of new officers will be the biggest hiring cycle in the department’s recent history.
“If we’re hiring five, six officers, that’s a pretty huge percentage of a smaller department like ours,” he said, adding that he understands the Town Board’s incentive to save money by waiting to hire the new officers.
Until the new contract is settled, the police department uses part-time officers to assist cops on patrol and provide support on calls, Chief Flatley said.
But the part-timers can’t replace a full-time cop, he said.
“We can’t use them to fill sectors,” Chief Flatley said.
During the summer it becomes even more difficult to find officers who can take overtime pay to make up for the unfilled positions, he said.
The department has offered overtime pay for weekends to entice officers to work, he said, but for some officers who already work extra days, the overtime pay isn’t enough to make up for the missed weekends.
“We’re at the point now where it’s hard for officers to get any time off at all,” Chief Flatley said.
Summer is the busiest season for the Southold Town Police Department and, while an analysis by The Suffolk Times in March found that overall incident reports were down in 2013 from the year before, Chief Flatley said that may be due to having a smaller department.
He said 90 percent of the department’s calls are “service related,” such as aiding injured residents or helping people who are locked out of their cars.
Fewer officers means that fewer such service calls can be handled each year, causing the drop in reported incidents, he said.
Chief Flatley added that the busy summer season has bled into the fall in recent years because pumpkin picking and other autumn activities are growing more popular with North Fork tourists.
Yet he is confident new officers will soon be hired and possibly on the road.
“I’m really hopeful and optimistic that we’ll be able to rectify this in the fall,” he said.