Jan. 1 marked three years since Kingston’s police officers have had a valid labor agreement with the city. Both sides say the talks are ongoing, but the head of the Kingston Police Benevolent Association says that there is growing concern about manpower in a department that has shrunk from 78 officers a decade ago to just 69 today.
The PBA contract with the city expired on Dec. 31, 2015. Since then, rank-and-file cops have continued to receive step raises and other benefits contained in the previous labor agreement, but talks remain stalled on a new contract. PBA President Brian Aitkin said the parties had filed for arbitration and the union was awaiting “language clarification” before proceeding. Last year, the Common Council approved a request by Mayor Steve Noble to set aside $800,000 in the city’s reserve fund for pay raises, including any retroactive raises, contained in a potential new contract. “It’s really kind of a waiting game now,” said Aitkin.
Both sides declined to cite specific sticking points. Aitkin outlined a number of issues that he said had an impact on morale. Among them, Aitken said, was a reduction in the number of lieutenants assigned to the department’s patrol division from three to one, a change that has left the agency’s sergeants with limited routes to promotion. Low staffing levels, Aitken said, had also made it harder for officers to take time off and limited the department’s ability to provide special assignments, like bike patrol, foot posts or plainclothes details.
Aitkin said morale has also taken in hit following a series of high-profile incidents of alleged police abuse in 2017 and subsequent action by the city’s police commission to investigate. In each case officers were cleared of wrongdoing, but only after a lengthy and very public period of scrutiny by activist groups and the commission. Aitkin said that the situation had improved with the introduction of body cameras to nearly all city cops, and a revamped procedure that has sped up the resolution of civilian complaints.
“There was a feeling that it was a little too political,” said Aitkin of the city’s handling of the complaints. “I don’t think politics should be influencing so much how our department is run.”
At least some relief may be in sight on the staffing issue. Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said this week that the authorized strength of the department stood at 71 and two vacancies were in the process of being filled. Tinti added that the department had shifted from assigning special details using officers on a regular schedule to using overtime to carry out the work.
Mayor Noble said that he believed the 71-member department was appropriate given an overall decline in crime in the city over the past 10 years and the introduction of new technology to help officers do their jobs more effectively.
“Even when we haven’t been investing in officers, we’ve been investing in the equipment that they need,” said Noble. “I think we’re in a stable place right now.”