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Article updated: 7/18/2012 5:44 AM

Some suburban police departments more top heavy than others

By Jake Griffin

With 10 of the 26 sworn police officers in Wauconda holding supervisory positions, even Mayor Mark Knigge believes the department might be a little top-heavy.

"At some point we'd like to see that number reduced," he said. "Our hope is that it could happen through retirement."

At the other end of the spectrum is Wheaton, with just 12 supervisors among the 65 full-time officers plus 14 part-timers.

It's a balancing act for communities that might be spending more than necessary on the higher-paying posts or overwhelming the few supervising officers they have with too much work and too many responsibilities.

Where the perfect balance lies is a matter of debate.

There's no specific staffing standard that police departments should strive to meet when it comes to supervising ratios.

"We look at the organizational structure, but we're not going to make proclamations about how top-heavy they are or aren't," said Craig Hartley, deputy director at the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

A textbook called "Police Administration: Structures, Processes and Behavior" says only that a sergeant shouldn't exceed seven subordinates because that's the "upper limit one person can effectively supervise," citing a 1967 International Association of Chiefs of Police study.

Among 80 suburban police departments analyzed, the average ratio is one supervising police officer for every 3.46 line officers. That's more than twice the ratio in Wauconda and more than three times the ratio in Prospect Heights.

"It's a skewed number when you're dealing with smaller departments," Prospect Heights Police Chief Jamie Dunne said. "We have four patrol teams necessitating four sergeants."

Prospect Heights employs eight full-time line officers and three part-timers, but the police department also has four corporals, a deputy chief and chief in addition to the four sergeants that are all paid higher salaries.

Some municipal leaders are eyeing these higher-paying supervisory posts as they look to cut overall town costs.

"We have looked at that," Knigge said.

In Wauconda, the 10 supervising officers make up 38 percent of the department but account for almost 44 percent of the total officer salaries.

Wauconda Police Chief Doug Larsson said a number of the department's sergeant positions were created in anticipation of the village's growth that stalled when the economy soured. He noted that the village board could reduce the sergeant positions, but because of the union contract little could be done about the salaries.

"It's important to keep in mind that these sergeants are not just supervisors who oversee the work of other officers; they are also beat officers out patrolling," Larsson said. "They do two jobs."

Additionally, Larsson noted that his officers, including sergeants, have had the village's code enforcement duties added to their responsibilities in recent years.

Leonard Territo, one of the co-authors of the police administration textbook, said specific circumstances should dictate a police department's supervisory staffing levels.

"There are a number of things that can affect these decisions," Territo said. "You've got to take into consideration the experience of the officers, for instance. If I have 10 highly experienced officers, the amount of supervision they're going to need is far less."

But Territo also warned that departments with fewer supervising officers could lead to rank-and-file officers being "under-supervised."

"The danger is that if you don't have enough supervision of inexperienced officers they could make serious mistakes when responding to calls," he said. "Then there's the natural inclination to goof off. There's all sorts of things that some officers might -- that's might -- get involved in if they know the supervising officer is overwhelmed."

Only a few suburban departments among the 80 analyzed had sergeant-to-officer ratios higher than the 1-to-7 maximum outlined in Territo's book. Many were smaller towns with large numbers of part-time patrol officers.

Wheaton was one of the larger departments with such a wide ratio. Police Chief Mark Field said the department's system works. There are six sergeants in Wheaton, which translates to one sergeant for every 11 officers. Other supervisory positions include two lieutenants, two commanders, a deputy chief and Field's post.

"This is a debate that's been ongoing in law enforcement and probably will be for many decades to come," he said. "In looking at any indicators that it might be a problem, I don't see it. I'm proud to do more with less."

Field said he's seen no "adequate research out there" indicating his department's supervisory staff is too small. He's had no complaints from the city council or city manager about the issue, either. About 23 percent of the department's full-time sworn officer salaries are tied to the 12 supervising officers, who make up about 19 percent of the full-time staff.

"The pivot point is the quality of those six individuals," Field said about his sergeants. "If they're doing their job, and doing it effectively, I'm going to have a lot less problems to deal with."

Got a tip?

Got a tip for the suburban tax watchdog? Contact Jake Griffin at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. You can follow him at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyheraldand twitter.com/DHJakeGriffin.

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