A proposal for coaches to help the police get in shape hit an unexpected barrier Monday when Councilwoman Denise Brucker opposed the issue vehemently.
Brucker, who is normally one of the council’s most ardent supporters of the police, not only spoke against the measure but also criticized the force for not using its money to better train officers.
The force wants to use $41,000 from its training budget to hire wellness coaches, who would meet with any interested officer to develop personalized fitness plans. The coaches would also organize programs to encourage weight loss and track health statistics such as sick days and health insurance costs.
The trouble, Brucker said, is that the force wants to use much of its training budget on fitness-related items rather than on education about issues more directly related to policing. Last year, most of the budget went to rehabbing the fitness gym at the police headquarters. For the next 18 months as now proposed, the $80,000 budget would partly be used to pay the coaches, at a total cost of $42,000.
“It’s one-third of the training budget this year,” Brucker said. “The fact that the police department is not utilizing training dollars to the fullest extent is disconcerting to me.”
Assistant Chief Mark Chaires said the department historically hasn’t spent its entire training budget, but Brucker wasn’t impressed. She said the police should use that money in the way it was intended.
“A significant amount of our training dollars should go to proactive training,” she said.
Chaires acknowledged that training on how to handle tricky police situations is important.
“A lot of experts will argue [when] you have an undertrained force … something gets out of control and then you have excessive force,” he said.
The city has faced incidents alleging excessive force over the years, including one late in 2007 in which five officers were suspended with pay. They are still off duty while the state Attorney General’s Office investigates.
But Chaires said the city police can afford to spend their training budget on fitness.
“I think our department is one of the most well-trained,” he said.
Brucker said that if the police don’t need the money for training, they should use it to serve the 2,600 warrants that have stacked up over the past 14 years.
“It’s my opinion that the money could be better spent,” she said. “You might think these outstanding warrants have nothing to do with fitness training — it might not — but I’d like to use the money for a better purpose.”
Chaires said the police can serve the warrants without using the training budget.
“As far as the warrants, I don’t know there’s any need to spend extra money,” he said, noting that patrol officers used to be required to serve warrants during every shift.
Several council members spoke in favor of the wellness coaches. Councilman Gary McCarthy argued that it could reduce health care costs, while Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard said the department’s new fitness gym would be useless if police didn’t receive expert advice on how to use the equipment.
But Brucker said police who want fitness training should pay for it themselves.
“I too go to a gym, and I pay for it,” she said. “I just don’t feel comfortable voting for this, knowing the situation the city is in with spending and everything.”
Councilman Mark Blanchfield told her the program might save money in the long run.
“If we save one day off per year, per officer, we would make this up three times over,” he said.
The issue was passed out of the Public Safety Committee by a vote of 2-1, with Brucker voting no while McCarthy and Councilman Joseph Allen voted in favor. The full council will vote next Monday.