COURT HOUSE – While much of the public’s attention was on school closings in March 2020, county municipal officials were fretting over the closing of the state’s police academies, the source of much-needed law enforcement help when the county’s population surges each summer.
Last year, the early part of the summer saw the pandemic dampen the usual influx of visitors, but the second half of the summer was strong, and that continued into fall. Municipal police departments had to make do with less than their normal summer staffing levels.
New Jersey’s program for Special Law Enforcement Officers (SLEOs) allows police departments to expand their staff levels to meet the population explosion that summer brings to the county.
There are three classes of SLEOs. An SLEO Class I completes an 80-hour training program and is generally authorized to perform routine traffic detail, spectator control, and similar duties. No Class I officer is authorized to carry a weapon.
Class II SLEOs are authorized to exercise full police powers and duties while working and can carry a weapon while on duty. They must complete an 11-week training program.
An SLEO Class III is a retired police officer under the age of 65, who previously was a fully trained full-time police officer in the state. These officers are primarily used in college or school settings.
County police departments, especially ones in the island resort communities, depend on SLEOs for staffing in the crowded summer months.
In 2020, Stone Harbor Police Chief Tom Schutta told Stone Harbor Borough Council his department of 17 sworn officers uses three Class I and 10 Class II officers for added summer support.
Before the pandemic altered staffing levels, neighboring Avalon, with a regular department of similar size to Stone Harbor, at 21 sworn officers, employed 18 special officers – five were Class I and 13 were Class II.
In his annual report, Chief Jeffrey Christopher said, “I cannot express how important these officers are to the Avalon Police Department and the Borough of Avalon.”
Special officers in the shore communities are used in several ways – working patrol, overlapping shift changes, providing court security, and performing similar duties.
Many individuals use the SLEO program to gain a full-time slot in a municipal department. The prospect of becoming a sworn officer helps to drawpromisingrecruits into the SLEO program, but it also means departments are always trying to replace SLEOs to deal with attrition caused by having officers find permanent employment.
Christopher noted that “finding and keeping qualified special officers is becoming increasingly difficult.”
SLEOs are not only used on the islands for summer staffing. Mainland departments also make use of them to balance openings and reach desired staffing levels.
As of Jan. 1, 2020, Middle Township police had seven Class II officers in its ranks. Lower Township used eight SLEOs in 2019. There are limits on how long an SLEO may work, both in terms of total duration of a contract and maximum hours per week.
Last year, extraordinary steps were taken to deal with the shortage of SLEOs and the temporary loss of full-time officers to Covid infection or quarantine. This year, the academy is open, and the classes for SLEO are ongoing.
The year of Covid made clear special officers’ importance to a county with sizable fluctuations in population levels. A county with an estimated 92,000 permanent residents surges to one with 800,000 summer visitors, according to estimates from tourism officials.
The SLEO program gives law enforcement departments the ability to expand to meet the need without burdening property taxpayers with the costs of large, full-time staffing levels.
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