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Our Town with William Kelly: Palm Beach looking to boost number of police officers

The Town Council has asked Town Manager Kirk Blouin and Police Chief Nicholas Caristo to hire more police officers so there is a greater law enforcement presence on the island.

At the board’s July 13 meeting, several council members said residents are anxious about the influx of visitors into town over the past two or three years.

Palm Beach’s population may not have grown, but the number of beachgoers, tourists, contractors, and other non-residents has swollen. Residents want to see more officers on patrol so they feel safer, several council members said.

“The town is busier than ever,” Councilman Ted Cooney said. “We see that in traffic numbers, with folks coming over the bridge.”

Cooney raised the issue during a discussion of budget priorities for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. He suggested the town add an additional patrol officer for each shift.

“A priority for me is always safety,” he said. “One of the greatest things about this town is there has always been a strong and visible Police Department.”

Blouin said the town has incrementally added police officer jobs over the last two years, with two more included in the budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That would bring the total number of approved police officer positions to 75. But there are only 64 sworn police officers working in the town.

But Caristo said the department needs to fill 11 vacancies to reach its full complement of 75 officers.

“We are aggressively recruiting right now,” Caristo said. “The applicant pool is very competitive.”

Nationwide, fewer people are choosing law enforcement as a career, police Captain William Rothrock said in an interview. As a reason, Rothrock cited the change in public sentiment following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The now-former officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of second-degree murder.

Recruitment is further hampered by an especially tight job market in South Florida, Rothrock said.

Blouin joined the town as a police officer in 1989 and rose through the ranks to become police chief and public safety director before the council appointed him as town manager in 2018.

He said the department has functioned effectively with fewer than 60 officers in the past. The number slid to a low point a few years ago after the town enacted deep pension cuts, which led to poor morale, an exodus of officers and unprecedented recruitment challenges.

“We had 50-something officers and were still able to do the job,” Blouin said.

Even so, council members said they’d like to see the current vacancies filled.

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said she had privately requested an expanded police profile before Cooney raised the issue publicly.

“We’ve got all these visitors we didn’t used to have,” she said. “We need that presence … It sounds like the 11 officers you are looking for right now [will meet] that demand.”

Council President Margaret Zeidman told Blouin and Caristo to do whatever they need to do to bring up the number of hired officers.

“You don’t want to have the vacancies that we have,” she said.

Cooney said he would go along with the decision to focus on recruitment instead of adding more positions.

“I’m comfortable letting staff take the lead on this,” he said. “But I will be keeping a close eye.”

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