Part-time, but always on duty

Small towns benefit from having a first line of defense: their own police officers

Police Chief Ramon Gonzalez Jr., left, likes the small-town feel of Perry, population 870, and how its residents watch out for one another. Gonzalez works part-time, as do his three officers.

When the town of Perry had a problem with a residential burglar last summer, it didn’t have to rely solely on the help of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

Its first line of defense was its own part-time police department.

In the early hours of an August morning, having an officer in town paid off. A Perry man returned home to find a burglar in his house where his wife and children were sleeping. The burglar fled, and police and sheriff’s officers were called.

A few minutes later, Perry Police Chief Ramon Gonzalez Jr. stopped the suspect’s vehicle for a traffic violation. Backed by a sheriff’s officer, Gonzalez also arrested the 38-year-old driver for burglary.

Gonzalez is a part-time police chief in a town of 870 people. Three officers, also part time, work with him. Moreover, Gonzalez and one other officer also live in Perry.

Ramon Gonzalez Jr., chief of Police for Perry, drives the small community daily. Because he is a town resident and knows nearly everyone, some people call him at home when they need help rather than calling 911 dispatch.

Residents are more comfortable knowing they are available, Mayor Mike Lang said.

“Chief Gonzalez is part-time, but he puts in a lot of hours, and with his deputies, they have it covered pretty well,” Lang said.

Just a few miles to the south across the county line and the Kansas River, the town of Lecompton is pondering how to increase its law enforcement presence. The town of 650 people doesn’t have a police department. When there is a problem, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office responds. Otherwise, sheriff’s officers drive through the town when they can as part of routine county patrol.

Twice during the past two months, the Lecompton City Council has met with Sheriff Ken McGovern to discuss the possibility of contracting to have a sheriff’s officer permanently assigned to patrol Lecompton. McGovern has said he is willing to work with the city to see whether its needs can be met.

The sheriff’s office has estimated it would cost $115,000 a year to have an officer patrol the town 40 hours a week. That cost covers the officer, car and equipment.

No decisions have been made by Lecompton leaders. If an arrangement is worked out, Lecompton Mayor Roy Paslay thinks it is likely an officer would be responsible for patrolling not just Lecompton but also the surrounding rural area. McGovern also told the council that would be his preference.

“They have a problem west of town with burglaries. By the time (officers) get there, they’ve already carried everything off and are gone,” Paslay said. “To drive our streets all the time would be a waste of time.”

In Perry, Gonzalez said his working hours vary. He also is on call around the clock. Because he lives in Perry, residents sometimes call him at home instead of calling sheriff’s dispatchers.

The exact cost for police service in Perry wasn’t immediately available. Police and volunteer fire department costs are combined into one budget. The budget this year is $124,365. Police and firefighter volunteers do not receive benefits.

Other Jefferson County towns with part-time police officers are Oskaloosa, Winchester and Nortonville. Oskaloosa’s 2007 police budge for three part-time officers is $55,000, according to the city clerk’s office.

The towns of Valley Falls and McLouth have full-time officers. Valley Falls’ (pop. 1,190) 2007 police department budget is $90,450, which includes pay for two full- and three part-time officers, equipment, training and other costs, a city official said.

In Johnson County, De Soto and Edgerton contract with the sheriff’s department for full-time patrols. De Soto pays the sheriff $331,154 for an officer (including car and equipment) who also patrols a district around the city. De Soto pays an additional $99,296 for an extra “powershift” officer, who works 40 hours a week during peak call times.

Edgerton pays the county $253,048 for full-time police patrols. Officers in Edgerton also handle calls in the district outside the city limits.

Many of the part-time police officers in Jefferson County are also sheriff’s deputies. In addition to his police duties, Gonzalez, who is a retired corporate security officer, is a part-time sheriff’s detective.

“That works out great for us,” Perry Mayor Lang said.