SALEM - Salem Police Chief J.T. Panezott said citizens can expect more aggressive enforcement of all offenses and more prioritizing of calls under his watch.
The newest top cop for the city discussed his plans, his budget and his hopes for the department he inherits today from retiring Chief Bob Floor, all during an interview shortly after taking his oath of office Thursday.
"I think the department out of necessity has turned into a reactive police department where we're answering calls at the expense of enforcement," he said.
In recent years, the department dropped from 24 officers (including the chief) down to 19 officers through attrition and lost a full-time secretary to layoff a few years ago. The number of officers who patrol the city is closer to 15, with one officer assigned to the Columbiana County Drug Task Force part-time (soon-to-be full-time), one full-time officer assigned to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, one full-time detective and the chief.
Once the DTF officer goes full-time, the plan is to promote another patrolman to sergeant and hire another patrolman, bringing the department to 20.
Panezott said he's going to have his officers be more aggressive in enforcement of all violations, including traffic.
"They're going to be looking for drugs, looking for warrants and any other offenses they come across," he said.
With more prioritization of calls, he explained they'll be focusing more on serious calls and have slower responses to calls like loud music, private property accidents where there are no injuries and barking dog complaints. If an officer is on his way to a barking dog complaint and sees a traffic violation or some other more serious offense along the way, he wants him to handle that - the barking dog can wait. He said people can't have it both ways.
"I've had numerous complaints about the drug activity and the way people are driving in town," he said.
As the former director of the county DTF and the officer assigned to the DEA, the majority of his 23 years in the department have been spent fighting the drug war. He said they would love to have their secretary back, but enforcement has to come first.
"There's a serious heroin epidemic right now. All our thefts, it all ties back to the drug problem, here in Salem and everywhere," he said.
When the weather gets warmer, they'll be stepping up patrols in the parks and the DTF officer's number one priority will be the city of Salem. Panezott would like to have an officer in the schools full-time.
He said he has five badges with nobody to wear them - his dream is to get four more patrolman on the road and an additional detective to help Det. Dave Talbert, who's swamped with work.
The city's population has grown and he's been told it may be higher due to alleged undocumented people living in Salem. Officers have run into a language barrier in some cases.
As for his budget, he said he's learned there's no money allotted for training and only $16,000 for vehicle/equipment repair and parts. The budget totals $1,569,224 for this year, with the majority going to personnel, a total of 1,171,317 for salaries and overtime and $287,426 for fringe benefits. There's also $15,273 for contractual services, such as computer support, phones and radios and copier contracts. That leaves $95,208 for supplies and materials such as uniforms, office expenses, non-vehicle supplies, auxiliary police supplies, non-vehicular maintenance costs, gasoline and diesel fuel and vehicle/equipment repair and parts. There's no capital funding to purchase vehicles or other equipment.
According to Panezott, the department relies heavily on DEA money from drug enforcement to replace vehicles and buy equipment. Of the cruisers and SUVs used on the road, all but two have more than 100,000 miles on their odometers. Last year, the department spent $105,582 from the DEA fund to buy two new cars, new computers and new radios all cruisers.
"That's money the city does not give us," he said, noting the city hasn't purchased a vehicle for the police department with city funds since 2006.
He said the DEA fund is down to under $75,000 and if two more cars are replaced this year, the total will be reduced even more.
Panezott said he's not complaining to the city because when more money is going out than coming in, that's an issue, referring to the projected deficit for this year in the city's overall budget.
He did say he's planning to apply for grants, possibly to replace vests. He also supports the Second Amendment and said his officers will do what they can with what they have.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at email@example.com