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The Springfield Park District Police Department is heading into the summer months with fewer officers than it had last year.
This time last year, there were six full-time and about four part-time officers to patrol the district's parks. Today, there are four full-time and one part-time officer.
Derek Harms, executive director of the park district, said the existing force is enough to get the job done. He noted that the district's budget is tight, and there are no plans to replace the officers who left.
"I think we can continue to provide a high level of safety and security with the current officers that we have," Harms said. "…We have a very good police force - very proactive. They do a good job of being visible in the parks and responding to calls throughout our system."
The Springfield Park District has 35 parks that encompass 2,600 acres. According to Google maps, the distance between Lincoln Park on the city's north end and Southwind Park to the south is 7.2 miles. At normal driving speed, that trip would take about 17 minutes.
The park district's general fund expenses for the fiscal year that starts May 1 are $10.5 million. Of that, the police department accounts for $466,000.
Most of the departing officers went to larger departments that have higher starting salaries. The starting salary for a full-time park district officer is $34,459, while the starting salary for a Sangamon County sheriff's deputy, for instance, is $45,650.
Capt. Jonathan Davis of the park district police said the difference in salaries is a big reason why officers leave his department.
"A lot of the guys who left said that if we were able to pay more, they'd never leave," Davis said.
The number of officers with the park district police has fluctuated fairly dramatically over the years.
In 2005, the roster had dropped to two officers: Davis and his partner.
By January 2012, the department was back up to eight full-time and three part-time officers.
Harms said the part-time officers aren't part of the regularly scheduled rotation; they are used to cover shifts when the full-time officers aren't available.
While the department had six full-time officers last April, that number went up to seven by June.
The current complement of four full-time officers includes Davis.
Harms said that if the need arises, officers from other police departments can answer emergency calls in the parks.
"We don't have a lot of activity during the day," Harms said. "The bulk of the activity is in the evenings after kids get out of school and people get off work. That's the peak time our parks are active… We will continue to have an officer dedicated to that shift."
Doug Dougherty, president of the Washington Park-Knolls Neighborhood Association, said he hasn't noticed any recent problems in the city's most popular park, Washington, due to a lack of police presence. He said he's pretty sure that if someone in the park called for help and there was an unusually long response time, he would have heard about it.
"We have lots of friends who use the park. There are a bunch of ladies who walk in the morning, a number of our friends are bike riders who use the park regularly, and we haven't heard anything," Dougherty said.
Peak coverage key
Springfield Park Board President Leslie Sgro said she, too, is comfortable with the current number of officers.
"I think we are able to cover the peak times that people are using the parks," Sgro said. "It's very important that we are able to be responsive in high-use times and also make sure people are safe and comfortable in our parks. I believe the staffing levels we have can achieve that."
Sgro said the park board is trying to balance the needs of the community within tight budget constraints. She added that she does see a need for the park district to operate its own police force.
"Sometimes we get complaints in a particular park, and it's important for us to be able to send an officer out to investigate those things," Sgro said. "I think it's important that we sustain a police force so we can be sure to be responsive to the community. At the same time, I think we need to do it in such a way that meets the fiscal realities we have."
Sgro said that if the current number of police officers becomes a problem, the park board could re-examine the issue.
"We are balancing a lot of different elements here. I think this will work," Sgro said. "If we move through the summer, and we think that for whatever reason it is not working as well as it should, we will absolutely re-evaluate it."
Contact John Reynolds: email@example.com, 788-1524, twitter.com/JohnReynoldsSJR.