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War call-ups causing Mass. police crunch

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War call-ups causing Mass. police crunch

by Thomas Caywood
Sunday, March 16, 2003

Seekonk police Chief Vito Scotti's officers are exhausted from pulling double shifts, and the constant overtime is killing his budget.

That's because Uncle Sam called up four of Seekonk's 33 full-time police officers, including the chief's second in command, and a fifth is on alert for deployment with his Reserve unit at any time.

``My officers are tired and fatigued,'' Scotti said. ``They are vigilant, but the fact is fatigue is definitely setting in.''

At a time when al-Qaeda operatives are thought to be plotting murderous attacks in America, it's cops who patrol the front lines of the war on terrorism every day.

But an unprecedented call-up of local Guard and Reserve units over the last year and a half has thinned the ranks of police departments around the state and, some fear, left cities and towns dangerously exposed.

``It's a problem. We're putting a hole in our homeland security,'' warned George DiBlasi, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association. ``I really believe, and a lot of chiefs do, there should be an exemption to keep the police at home to take care of homeland security.''

Police officers, many of whom served in the armed forces before entering law enforcement, have long comprised a major chunk of the reserves. But never before have so many been pulled off the streets at once, officials said.

More than 4,600 weekend warriors from Massachusetts units were serving on active duty as of last week, according to a Herald review of Pentagon records.

That number includes 2,140 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps reservists assigned to Bay State units. The remaining 2,465 called-up soldiers are members of the Massachusetts Army and Air National Guard. Those numbers will continue to shoot up in the coming weeks with more than 700 additional guardsmen expected to deploy overseas this month.

Amid the massive buildup for war in Iraq, local Guard and Reserve troops continue to serve throughout the Northeast defending military bases and federal installations and fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.

``We've got three missions going on right now. That's never happened before,'' said Leonid Kondratiuk, the Massachusetts National Guard's historian and a retired Army colonel.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than 5,000 Bay State guardsmen have served on active duty, easily the biggest call-up since World War II. By comparison, less than 700 guardsmen got the call in the Gulf War and only about 400 were activated during the decade-long Vietnam War.

Kondratiuk said successful use of part-time units during the Gulf War validated the military's post-Vietnam ``Total Force Policy,'' Pentagon jargon for full integration of regular and reserve forces.

``Now you can't send the package out unless you use all the components,'' Kondratiuk said.

But this new reliance on part-time soldiers - many of whom are cops, prison guards and firefighters in civilian life - has many small police departments cutting back on patrols or scrambling to cover for missing officers with overtime shifts.

``It kills them,'' said DiBlasi of the police chiefs association. ``Most of the police departments in Massachusetts are small departments. If you lose one out of 15, that's a problem.''

Just ask Upton police Chief Thomas Stockwell. His small department has been without one of its 12 full-time officers for a year and a half. The young patrolman, a National Guard military policeman, was activated first to beef up security at airports and then shipped off to Uzbekistan. ``We were stretched very thin,'' Stockwell said. ``We had to cover his shift the best way we could. A lot of times it went vacant. It was a strain on the department.''

Scotti, the Seekonk chief, has written letters to Congress and the new Department of Homeland Security asking for federal money to help keep his streets safe.

``We have officers supporting this country. I think it's incumbent on the federal government to provide some federal monies,'' he said.

U.S. Rep. James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who represents Seekonk, fired off his own letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, which hasn't been answered according to the congressman's press secretary Michael Mershon. McGovern sent a second letter, this one also addressed to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, on Monday. The latest missive was signed by 62 House members.

``We must do something to assist these local first responder departments with this personnel and financial crisis,'' the lawmakers urged in the letter.

During World War II, the last call-up of this magnitude, police were exempt from the draft and few served in the Guard and Reserve, Kondratiuk said.

``This is a new phenomenon,'' he said, adding that he doubted Pentagon officials have ever considered the impact of a major call-up on local police forces. ``They are just looking for the units they need, not where they come from.''

Defense officials have called up more than 400 soldiers from two Boston-area National Guard military police companies, composed mainly of law enforcement officers.

At last count, state police had 33 troopers and three civilian employees serving with Uncle Sam, a spokesman said. Bay State prisons also have seen scores of correction officers called to active duty.

The state Department of Correction has 74 prison guards serving on active duty, out of a staff of roughly 5,100. ``We do anticipate that number will increase on a weekly basis,'' said Michael Rodrigues, a department spokesman.

Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr. has nine correction officers away on military duty out of a uniformed staff of roughly 420.

``We would prefer to have them here with us, but they are answering a call right now that is selfless and heroic,'' spokesman Paul Fleming said. ``We have people all over in the Middle East.''

Since the start of the fiscal year in July, Essex County has shelled out roughly $50,000 in overtime pay to cover those shifts. ``We're happy to pay that because of what they are doing,'' Fleming said.

In Suffolk County, 16 of roughly 950 corrections officers have been called up, said Rick Lombardi, a spokesman for Sheriff Andrea Cabral.
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