Great Bend officer shortage impacts sheriff’s office

GREAT BEND, Kan. (KSNW) — The Barton County Sheriff’s Office aims to have two or three deputies, per shift, out on the streets — covering almost 900 square miles.

However, its workload is starting to increase.

“Consistently two or three times a week, probably sometimes two or three times a day, the police department runs out of officers that are on patrol,” said Sheriff Brian Bellendir. “The sheriff’s office will come in and back up.”

Bellendir recalled an incident on June 1, where he had to provide backup to a Great Bend officer.

“I was the only officer available,” he said. “So I actually, myself, went down to back them up on a fight call.”

Right now, Great Bend Police Chief Cliff Couch believes the department is in a dangerous state involving a staffing shortage.

During Monday night’s city council meeting, he referenced a Federal Bureau of Investigation study that indicated the Midwest region’s average officer-to-1,000 citizens ratio is 2:6. In Great Bend, it’s 1:8.

“If we want to get to that average, we have to add 13 officers to what we already have,” Couch said.

Bellendir agreed with Couch. He said he’s fortunate his deputies have been able to handle the extra calls, but that might not always be the case.

“We might run into an issue at some point in time where we’re not available to respond to the city of Great Bend,” said Bellendir. “We won’t be able to help.”

This leaves both agencies wondering how to continue to keep the community safe.

Great Bend city council meeting 

The Great Bend city office building was packed with people for the June 5 city council meeting — many sitting on the floor or standing in the hallways.

When the crowd learned Police Chief Cliff Couch was not on the agenda to inform council members about problems in the police department, a lively discussion began.

“I know he’s got problems,” said council member Dana Dawson. “Thankfully Sheriff Bellendir has been making a lot of calls inside the city limits. You could just look at the police reports, and these aren’t going to get resolved.”

Mayor Mike Allison responded by saying the chief wasn’t on the agenda.

“Well let’s put him on there tonight,” someone shouted.

“Why are you putting it off,” yelled another audience member.

Eventually, Dawson made a motion to allow Couch to speak. Councilman Brock McPherson seconded the motion, saying he wanted to hear both sides of the issue. The motion passed 4-3.

As audience members clapped, Chief Couch walked to the podium. He stood at the podium and said, “The Great Bend Police Department, it’s no secret, we experience a really high turnover.”

He added that the low manpower doesn’t allow his department to provide an adequate level of law enforcement services to the community.

According to Couch, many of his officers are working overtime and coming in on their days off — leading to burnout.

“This crisis is real and is dangerous for the community,” Couch said.

In a PowerPoint presentation, the chief explained different reasons as to why the department is having these problems. His theories included: workload, compensation and a hostile workplace.

According to Couch, officers that left the department cited a high call volume as a reason for leaving. Others have complained about the excessive overtime and “inability to have a personal life.”

The chief also noted the inadequate compensation is a “turnoff” when trying to recruit officers.

“There’s two similarly sized agencies about an hour away from us, and they both start $1 to $2 an hour more than us,” said Couch.

For the hostile work environment, Couch explained to the council that a former officer said he didn’t like working with a specific supervisor. When the city administrator asked him for more specifics, the former officer referenced an insult made several years ago.

According to the chief, the department takes complaints, internally and externally, seriously.

“There are problems,” he said. “But they get resolved.”

The chief concluded his presentation by telling council members that he believes recruitment issues are due to compensation, and retention issues are due to low manpower. He asked the city council to seriously look at his concerns, possibly hiring an outside consultant to conduct a compensation study.

At the end of the presentation, McPherson said the council was led to believe the chief had a change of attitude since he was first hired and didn’t care about the advancement of the police department.

“If that’s what you were told, you were lied to,” responded the chief.

McPherson asked him, “Do you still want to keep it going and make it work?”

Chief Couch answered: “Sir, if I didn’t care about this council, I wouldn’t be whipping through this last couple of weeks.”

He added: “My work life has been a living hell since I dared to disagree.”

Police chief accuses city administrator of retaliation, harassment

An open letter was addressed to Great Bend city council members on May 30, from Chief Cliff Couch’s attorney. The attorney said the reasons were clear — to express concerns over the city administrator Howard Partington.

The letter claimed that Partington “..ignored Chief Couch’s stated concerns about the need for more manpower at the Police Department and a compensation study performed by an outside entity.”

Couch alleged that Partington didn’t want the chief or his officers to talk to the council about their concerns. He also claimed Partington acted in retaliation when Couch disagreed with him, and said he wasn’t allowed to attend the FBI National Academy.

Due to personnel issues, council members said the allegations have to be discussed in executive discussion.