By FRED T. ROSSI For Union County HAWK
FANWOOD — The borough council on Monday night discussed manpower shortages in the police department and potential ways to ensure the department is as fully staffed as possible.
Councilwoman Patricia Walsh, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, broached the topic at the governing body’s work session, noting that the department, since September 2021, has lost five officers while hiring three new ones. She said the department presently has 14 officers on active duty, with two out due to health reasons, one until next month and the other until October. In January, the police department requested that one additional officer be hired to bring the force to full strength at 17, but Chief Financial Officer Patricia Celardo said she had not included funds in this year’s budget to hire a new officer.
Several council members expressed concerns about the costs of overtime being incurred while the department is not fully staffed, and Mrs. Walsh said that as long as the department operates with minimum staffing, there is always a risk if an officer needs to leave active duty for any period of time. In the meantime, Police Director Michael Bramhall has been trying to manage the staffing gap by moving and reassigning various officers to different shifts.
Councilman Anthony Carter said he was “not opposed to having the officers that we need” and suggested asking the county police for a fill-in “when circumstances arise.” He pointed out that a Fanwood officer currently is away teaching at a county-organized event for officers. When something like that occurs, he said, the county should then help Fanwood by sending a county officer to assist the borough police. Mayor Colleen Mahr said it was “a legitimate conversation” to have with the county.
In other business, the police department will take part in a county-organized program — Arrive Together — that aims to better address the mental-health needs of people in crisis and to reduce the risk that encounters with police might end in violence. The program pairs a police officer with a mental-health screener in an unmarked vehicle to respond to 911 calls for service relating to mental- or behavioral-health crises. The program was initiated in late 2021 by the state attorney general’s office and several Union County police departments are participating.
Every fifth Tuesday, a borough police officer will be assigned to an eight-hour shift that could take the officer to a neighboring town — Scotch Plains, Mountainside, New Providence or Berkeley Heights — if such a mental-health-oriented crisis arose. Three borough officers are trained to assist in such situations.
“Mental health is an issue” for police departments, said Mayor Mahr, who said the Arrive Together program “is needed” and “very timely” given that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.
The council on Monday also authorized the services of an engineer to look into solutions for plumbing issues at the Fanwood Community House, where restrooms are being used much more frequently now that the library has temporarily relocated to the north-side parking lot at the train station. Borough Engineer Antonios Panagopoulos said the existing pipe is old and not sufficiently sloped to carry wastewater to the main line 320 feet away, so an upgrade that will entail installing a new pipe will be necessary.
At its next meeting, on Monday, May 15, the council may be set to introduce the 2023 operating budget along with this year’s capital budget, but the timing hinges on what is decided at a special budget meeting to be held between now and then.
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