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Six-officer police force will be difficult, Newport chief says

Newport's police department will be reduced to six working officers until at least February, the city's administrator said Monday, a move the department's outgoing and interim chiefs said will present significant staffing challenges.

The exit of one of the department's seven officers on Monday leaves Newport Police two officers shy of the eight-person staff it has generally operated with since 1991.

"It's going to be extremely difficult," said outgoing Newport Chief of Police Veid Muiznieks. "Both the acting, interim chief (Sgt. Curt Montgomery), and the investigator (Brian Domeier) are going to be working patrol shifts."

Muiznieks said Newport police chiefs have not typically patrolled the streets since the 1980s, instead handling the administrative side of the department.

City Administrator Brian Anderson said the city would wait to hire a seventh officer until Sgt. Montgomery, tapped by Newport City Council last month to replace Muiznieks on an interim basis Dec. 1, has been assessed in his new position. That, he said, will mean a four to five month wait.

Montgomery will be evaluated while overseeing a department spread thin in what Muiznieks called "a very difficult time."

"Shift coverage when people are sick or want vacation or something like that, that's always going to be a challenge," Montgomery said. "But we'll make due with what we have."

Anderson said the decision to delay hiring a new officer isn't financially driven -- funding is available in the 2010 police budget for a seventh officer.

Rather, he said, the temporary delay gives the city an opportunity to take its time on the decision of whether to remove the interim tag from Montgomery's title.

"It will allow us to see what we're going to do," Anderson said. "We want to make sure we follow the correct process in hiring the chief."

In August, Newport ceased discussions about merging police operations with St. Paul Park. Anderson said the city would not save enough money in such a co-op between the neighboring cities.

Mayor Tim Geraghty also said he believes the smaller police force is temporary, and that the timing of officer Grant Jacobs' departure -- just prior to the exit of Muiznieks, who will spend most of his remaining time in the department on paid time-off -- is driving the decision more than money.

"I personally don't know if we can go very long with six (officers)," Geraghty said. "Obviously we want to have the amount of public safety (officials) that we need. We're not going to jeopardize public safety. We'll fill (the position) if we need."

Muiznieks' predecessor, Steve Sawyer, expanded the department to eight officers in the early-1990s, in part, the outgoing chief said, because of increased traffic through Newport.

The lack of a seventh officer means Montgomery, the interim-chief-in-waiting, and Domeier, the department's lone investigator, will perform patrol duties. That, Muiznieks said, means fewer investigations will be done, and at a slower pace.

Officers will also use more expensive overtime to help fill gaps in shift coverage, officials say.

"It will be difficult for the existing officers to continue to provide the same level of service that we have," Muiznieks said.