Lewes police feel the heat from council

Officials question budget requests
March 6, 2018

Lewes Police Chief Tom Spell and Lt. James Azato were on opposite ends of an interrogation Feb. 28, as some members of Lewes Mayor and City Council scrutinized the department’s proposed budget. 

The discussion centered on the department’s vehicles. Spell is planning to use two $25,000 grants from Sussex County to help pay for two new police vehicles. He is asking council for an additional $20,000 to cover the $70,000 cost. 

One will be converted into a K-9 vehicle, while the other will be added to the pool for on-duty officers to use. The existing K-9 vehicle will be sold. The result would be one vehicle more than what the department has now, resulting in five vehicles available for the department’s 10 officers who patrol. 

“If we have four vehicles identified as patrol, and we’re only using half of them at any given shift, isn’t that enough? It seems like it would be, but I’m not a police officer,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Osler. 

Spell said the department is treading water. At the time of the meeting, one of the patrol cars was in the shop, leaving only three available. 

“We have two school crossings that have to be worked, which could tie up all three vehicles that we have,” said Azato. “That doesn’t leave a vehicle for an officer to go to court … or to go to training. On certain days we have multiple officers who have to go to court and training.”

Councilman Rob Morgan pointed out that the department previously had five vehicles in its patrol pool, but one was given to Azato shortly after Spell became chief in 2016. 

Spell defended that decision.

“Second in command of the police department needs a vehicle,” he said. “He is subject to call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He has come in a lot since I’ve been here.” 

Azato said his take-home vehicle is necessary. He said he’s been called in for a variety of reasons, from maintenance of equipment and servers to logging evidence to work on a shooting, rape and burglaries.

“I certainly don’t consider a take-home vehicle a perk of the position,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I respond in here more than any other employee of the city.” 

The city has eight vehicles total. In addition to the four for patrol, vehicles are also dedicated to the chief, lieutenant, detective and K-9 officer. 

Smart Car in pursuit?

Spell said it is his intention to purchase two new Ford SUVs. 

Morgan questioned the need for a vehicle that is equipped for high-speed pursuits in a town where the speed limit is no higher than 35 mph, except on Freeman Highway. Spell said his officers have been involved in high-speed pursuits – more than 20 mph over the speed limit – three times since he joined the force. 

Morgan passed along a New York Times article highlighting the increased fleet of Smart Fortwos – Smart cars – by the New York City Police Department. He said he saw them in action during a recent trip to New York. 

“I’m not sure we need hot rods for the police,” Morgan said. “This article suggests we can save a lot of money per car. I’m not suggesting that we have no pursuit vehicles.” 

The article says the department has added 150 Smart Fortwos to supplement the fleet of “thousands of vehicles.”

“I don’t see the problem with doing your pursuits in the city of Lewes in a much more modest car,” Morgan said. 

Azato said he would prefer the city stay with its existing vehicles. 

“I don’t necessarily like the idea of underpreparing officers to deal with an emergency situation that we could be faced with at any moment,” he said. “Under the same rationale, you could say our firearms aren’t necessary because we haven’t had a shooting. We’re police officers, and we have to be prepared for any situation.”

The whole discussion irked Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait, who thought Morgan’s questions and comments were out of line.

“I’m very upset with the way this conversation is going,” he said. “You’re making accusations, and I think that’s inappropriate.” 

Morgan fired back.

“I don’t care if you’re upset,” he said. “I think we’re dealing with the budget.” 

No more seasonal officers?

Spell said he supports eliminating the seasonal police force. The city typically hires four seasonal officers. Most are 18, 19 or in their early 20s. 

“Dewey and Rehoboth need them, but I do not believe Lewes does,” he said. “To me, having pseudo-seasonal police representing our city and our department, and doing things that only regular policemen should be doing is, in my eyes, not best practices.” 

The city budgets $31,000 for seasonal officers. Spell said the work could be picked up by his officers, though some extra overtime would be required to cover summer events like concerts in the park and the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. 

“Although there are some benefits, I’m not sure they outweigh the management responsibilities [Azato] and I have, the liability possibilities and just how much they help in operations.” 

Though not a done deal, council discussed shifting some of the budgeted money to regular police overtime and adding the rest into the city’s surplus, which was nearly $60,000 in the fourth draft of the budget. 

If Spell determines seasonal police are needed next summer, Osler said, he need not worry that council won’t allow him to have them back.

“This isn’t one of those budget things where you give it up and can’t ask for it again,” she said. “We’re always open to making your case.”