By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY — As part of the Amesbury Police Department’s efforts to lobby city councilors to accept a $250,000 federal grant allowing the law enforcement agency to hire one or more school resource officers, it has released sobering statistics on a number of related issues including domestic violence calls, the homeless population and the rise of single mothers living under the poverty line.
The Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant comes with provision that the city must agree to match 25 percent, around $70,000, within 90 days of the award. That requires the City Council to formally accept the grant. Mayor Thatcher Kezer said he is expected to introduce a bill asking the council to accept the grant in time for its November meeting.
But judging by the political mood of the City Council, accepting the grant could be a challenge.
Earlier this week, councilor at-large Jim Kelcourse expressed reservations about asking taxpayers to dig deeper into their pockets while District 3 councilor Donna McClure questioned the need to have armed officers inside the schools.
According to statistics released by local police and the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, there were 392 reported domestic violence incidents in 2012 involving 163 children. From Jan. to April of this year, there have been 117 reported cases of domestic violence with 53 children involved, a significant rise percentage-wise based on 2012.
The last count of documented homeless people living in Amesbury is at 156, including 60 children, according to statistics provided by the Salisbury-based social services agency, the Pettengill House. Citywide, 24 percent of all children are living in low-income homes and Amesbury has the fastest growing population (per capita in the state) of single parents, mostly women, with preschool-aged children living at or below the poverty level.
Perhaps most troubling, in 2011 the Massachusetts Department of Family and Child Services declared the city to be an “at risk community for child maltreatment,” according to Pettengill House statistics.
Amesbury police Sgt. Kevin Donovan said that while the statistics aren’t directly related to incidents inside the city’s schools, they are part of the bigger picture showing the challenges of those entering the Amesbury public school system each year. Those challenges were also expressed by the school department and Pettengill House, which wrote letters of support as part of the police department’s grant application.
Donovan said that missing out on the grant would prove detrimental considering the police department applied for the grant last year but was rebuffed by the Department of Justice. This year, Amesbury was one of only three Bay State communities, along with Tewksbury and Chelsea, to receive the COPS grant. More than 50 departments across the state applied.
Amesbury police has been without a school resource officer since 2005 when current Sgt. Richard Poulin was assigned to both the high school and middle school. In addition to the school resource officer’s crime prevention role inside the schools, the officer also serves as a vital communication link between the police department and school officials. Add the educational component where an officer talks directly to students about the dangers of drug and alcohol use and the school resource officer’s role is multi-faceted and year-round.
Recently, Kezer said his immediate goal would be to sit down with Chief Financial Officer Michael Basque and come up with the best strategy to present the bill to the council.
Kelcourse, who is running for re-election, said he would welcome a discussion into whether the grant was worth the expense to the city, but wouldn’t be able to vote for it if it required residents to dig deeper into their pockets.
“Any additional expenditure that’s going to increase the burden on the taxpayers, I don’t think it’s acceptable. It’s not in their best interest,” Kelcourse said, adding he supported having a police officer stationed inside schools.
Kelcourse raised the idea of having the matching grant money come out of a police or school budget as a possible alternative to asking residents to foot the bill.
“We should expand our efforts to take money out of existing budgets rather than to ask taxpayers to pony up additional money,” Kelcourse said.
McClure sounded less willing than her counterpart to discuss the idea saying she would prefer to see additional adjustment counselors in the schools rather than police officers.
“We’re missing the root of the problem and sort of putting a Band-aid on that,” McClure said.
Kelcourse said despite the 90-day time limit imposed by the federal government, he thinks the council will be able to vote on the issue in time.