The Courier-News

Questions raised after patrol reductions

Monday, September 13, 2010

SLEEPY HOLLOW -- After the Sleepy Hollow Village Board last week narrowly voted to cut overnight police patrols, trustee Dennis Fudala turned to the village attorney and asked if the move left the village open to lawsuits.
"Does the village hold any liability if one officer is not able to or equipped to handle a particular situation?" Fudala asked. "Does the village hold liability for cutting his backup or his second guy?"

In a 4-to-3 vote Sept. 7, trustees reduced overnight patrol shifts from two to one officer five out of seven nights a week. Starting Oct. 1, there will only be one Sleepy Hollow cop on duty from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, Sleepy Hollow Police Chief Jim Montalbano said.

The situation concerns Montalbano.

"They can't ignore calls for help," Montalbano said of his police officers. "Drunken husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends, too. Those are the ones that are going to create a problem."

Montalbano said that he explained to the village board several years ago why he needs two officers for overnight shifts seven days a week and believes the board's move last week was "a mistake."

"I'm a liability manager," Montalbano said. "That's my job. My whole thing is keeping people safe. I'll tell you it is impossible -- dangerous, at least -- to arrest somebody one-on-one. I don't want it to be my officer injured and I don't want it to be the person that my officer is arresting who is hurt."

At last week's meeting, trustees who voted against the cut begged the question of liability. Fudala, Steve Wind and Scott Finney quizzed the board's legal counsel, Mark Schuster: What if an officer took a wrong turn on the way to a call and was delayed in responding? What if a cop did not feel safe responding to a report all by himself?

Schuster said he believed immunity statutes would protect the village from being sued if something bad happened to a resident. To encourage individuals to volunteer or to work in the emergency response field (police, paramedics, firefighters) Illinois has laws aimed at limiting the possibility of recovering damages from such workers in a lawsuit. Given the difficulty of providing care in emergency situations, state statutes provide a sort of immunity from being sued in many cases, the attorney said.

Schuster cautioned however, that the question of liability would need to be answered on a case-to-case basis.

The motion to make the cuts came from Trustee Donald Ziemba, who uttered it shortly after the board had finished a discussion all but putting the fiscal year to bed with a re-purposing of some developmental impact funds. Earlier in the summer, the village narrowed its $230,000 deficit to about $40,000 by cutting one employee's hours and leaving another position in the village unfilled.

In addition, the motion came just days after it appeared the police department was safe from cuts, as trustees announced cash raised by residents to support the department no longer was needed.

Russell Getz, Jeff Seiler, Ziemba and Village President Stephen Pickett justified their votes last week by saying reducing police patrol would help fix the village's budget problems. Cutting one shift would save the village about $17,000 this year and about $28,000 next year, they said.

An ugly debate on the issue raged for about 30 minutes before the final vote. Several trustees became hot under the collar and at one point, a red-faced Seiler told Finney, "You're so full of crap you can't even see your eyeballs."

"You're talking about micromanaging how the chief deploys his resources," Finney returned. "If you're saying the police budget has to go down $20,000, then it's really the chief's business how he does it, but you don't want to do that. You want to dictate how he runs his department."

Later, President Pickett had to slam his gavel on a table several times to prevent the verbal fights among board members from escalating.

Before the vote, Wind and Finney suggested cuts to the department were against resident's wishes and said the board should consider raising the cost of vehicle stickers, dipping into reserves, a referendum or other options before cutting reducing the patrol manpower. No such moves were made.