Amid national conversations about the role of police, the Astoria Police Department is looking to the community for feedback and will add a community outreach officer to its roster.
The new part-time position — focused on community interaction rather than enforcement — is one the department has been interested in adding for a while. It is one of several other new positions included in a city budget the City Council approved Tuesday that are intended to relieve pressure on key city departments.
The survey is in response to the social unrest over the past year and calls to defund police following police killings of Black men elsewhere in the country.
In the survey, the police department asks respondents to rate how they feel police officers treat people in the community, what the interactions have been like, what they think are the greatest problems in the community, if the respondent feels safe in bars or on the Astoria Riverwalk, among other questions. There is space to provide additional comments.
Police Chief Geoff Spalding hopes the survey will validate and confirm things the department already knows. He hopes it will also lead to tangible actions the department can take to improve or enhance its relationship with the community. The survey answers could determine where the department focuses the new community service officer, for example.
“We expect that there will be some negative comments and some areas we can look at and hopefully improve upon,” Spalding said. But, he added, “we’re doing it for a reason — because we want to be responsive to the community.”
The creation of the community service officer position was done in the same spirit, he said. While the person who takes the job will be trained in the basics of criminal law and how to take a report and talk on a police radio, it is not a position that requires police academy training.
“I’m looking more for the positive community contacts and coordinating special events we’d like to do more of,” Spalding said. Events like coffee with cops and the like.
As far as enforcement goes, at most, the officer might write parking tickets or take police reports.
The city’s 2021-22 spending plan, though cramped by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, also added an associate planner position for the Community Development Department and a deputy fire chief to take over fire marshal and emergency management duties.
Both positions will ease pressures on the departments as demands for services remain high.
Community development has been busier than ever in recent years, but a multiyear search for a new director and a small staff meant some long-term projects like code development went on the back burner.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the department saw a slight reduction in work for the first few months, but then the volume went right back up, said Megan Leatherman, the community development director.
She hopes to post the associate planner position this week and have someone selected for the job later in the summer. She also will need to find a new city planner. Barbara Fryer, hired in 2019, took a position with the city of Cornelius and worked her last day last week.
While Leatherman is confident she will find a roster of candidates for the two planning jobs, the city continues to look for a building official, too. It has proved to be a particularly challenging job to fill.
Many people in these jobs are retiring and younger people are not moving into the industry to take their place, Leatherman said. But the city is also competing with the private sector for candidates.
“We saw this before when we had the last housing boom,” she said. People were able to make more money in the private sector and were not tempted by government jobs.
“We’re kind of reaching that same point,” Leatherman said.
Astoria has never had a dedicated emergency manager and Fire Chief Dan Crutchfield has tackled the various fire marshal duties himself. The department already has another deputy chief whose primary focus is on training and shift supervision.
The addition of a second deputy chief who can work more with developers and homeowners to address fire safety concerns at the beginning of projects will be an important addition, Crutchfield said. He hopes to also implement a business inspection program when the new deputy chief is hired to get fire personnel into buildings in the city so they can familiarize themselves with the layout and look for potential fire hazards.
The city budget comes to $49.5 million, up from this year’s budget of $46.9 million. With the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the city anticipates receiving $2 million in additional funding over a two-year period for infrastructure needs, according to a budget message prepared by City Manager Brett Estes.
“As a city,” Estes wrote, “we have developed budgeting to provide resources for daily activities while paying close attention to (City Council) goals and providing flexibility for the current pandemic status while planning for future impacts and unforeseen events.”