ONLY ON NEWS 4: Bellefontaine Neighbors Police give up-close look at officer’s struggles amid staffing shortage crisis

Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 6:22 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 10, 2022 at 2:29 PM CDT
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BELLEFONTAINE NEIGHBORS, Mo. (KMOV) - The push for a pay raise for one St. Louis suburb police department continues as the Bellefontaine Neighbors Police Department faces critically low staffing. The department will only have five patrol officers by the end of business Friday.

There was a push to get a vote for wage increases on Thursday’s Board of Aldermen agenda. However, the city attorney did not grant that request because some board members requested additional information.

At full strength, the police department would have one lieutenant, a sergeant, and four patrol officers on a shift, canvassing the community’s four quadrants. There was just one sergeant and two patrol officers on the streets working to protect the city of 10,000 people.

News 4 was given an exclusive ride-along with Sgt. Aaron Neff to see firsthand just how difficult it is for the department to do its job with so few officers.

“It’s horrible,” Neff said

Sgt. Neff has 13 years of experience with the Bellefontaine Neighbors Police Department.

“To be completely blunt, I’m already seeking employment at other agencies just as a failsafe,” Neff explained. “If we don’t get what we need or the community needs.”

He said the officer shortage is driving up call response times. That means residents in a time of crisis are having to wait longer for a police officer to arrive.

“It’s making tensions higher in some cases, we aren’t trusted,” Neff shared. “When we aren’t there when they need us it’s making it worse for them, for us. Making it harder for us to do our jobs.”

At Thursday’s Board of Alderman meeting, Chief Jeremy Ihler told the board and community members present that no one should hesitate to contact police, but there will be delays potentially of 15 minutes or more.

“More likely now than usual. Priority 1 calls, such as crimes against people, there is no waiting period,” Chief Ihler explained Thursday night. “If everybody is assigned a Priority 1 call, we will use mutual aid from a neighboring police department to answer additional Priority 1 calls immediately.”

“Priority 2 calls, such as a report of a derelict vehicle, will be held if all police officers are handling Priority 1 calls,” Chief Ihler shared. “However, all Priority 2 calls will be addressed when police officers become available. This is where there may be a waiting period. We do a request the dispatcher to notify the caller of a Priority 2 call, that our response time will be delayed.”

While riding with police, News 4 was rolling on a call for a disturbance. One of the individuals involved was suffering from a mental illness. Neff said it’s responses to calls like this that will end if his department closes.

“There are going to be thousands of people suffering if we don’t resolve this situation soon,” Neff said.

Residents told News 4 they are terrified if they lose their local police department.

“If someone tries to break in, who do I call? If they are out taking care of other calls, who is going to come help me. so it’s a big concern,” resident Vickie Wiggley said.

“I mean it’s bad enough already,” Jeffery Pirtle shared. “You don’ t see them patrolling. You might see them on Bellefontaine every now and then. If I see one maybe two but probably going to a call. Other than that, I guess it’s such a big area, you don’t see them. I didn’t know they only had five.”

Neff said the community’s support this week, filling city hall twice, gives him hope a solution will be found.

“To see the support we got, and then having you there, telling our story and having the community tell their side how they appreciate us,” Neff shared. “It definitely plays a major part in what may or may not happen in the future of this department.”

Again, the effort to get an amendment to Thursday’s agenda was not granted.

Chief Ihler told News 4 he feels the reasons why are valid and will comply with the requests made.

The next opportunity for an amendment for officer pay to appear on an agenda will be two weeks from now, on Thursday, October 20.