BERRYVILLE — Councilwoman Donna Marie McDonald is renewing her plea for Berryville Town Council to fund the hiring of an extra police officer.

McDonald initially made her request in January. The town considered funding the officer for the new fiscal year that started July 1, but budget constraints resulted in the position being placed on the back burner.

As the town's population grows, so should its police department, McDonald maintains. The department currently has nine sworn officers.

"I could give 10 reasons" specifically as to why another officer is needed, she told the council's Public Safety Committee on Wednesday. But she gave only one as an example: the need for increased patrols amid "the two o'clock blast" of traffic when the afternoon rush hours start.

Statistics show variations in the department's workload.

Officers made 63 arrests during the first six months of this year. That was up from 44 — an increase of 43.2% — during the same period last year.

Arrests related to having illegal drugs or paraphernalia increased by 300%, from 7 to 28. That was the largest arrest category.

In a phone interview on Thursday, Police Chief Neal White generally attributed the increase to "a couple of bigger investigations involving narcotics at the beginning of 2020" that resulted in multiple arrests.

But now that Virginia has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, he's concerned that the category may keep rising.

This month, legislation took effect lowering the penalty for having up to one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor criminal offense, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, to a civil infraction with no more than a $25 fine. Convictions won't appear on a person's criminal record.

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization, White emphasized.

For instance, "you can't be under the influence of drugs, whether they're legal or illegal, and drive," he said.

Among other categories: Arrests for weapons violations rose from 0 to 4 and protective order violations increased from 0 to 2.

Six assault and battery arrests occurred during each six-month period. However, the number of arrests for assaults on police officers rose from 0 to 2. Arrests for resisting arrest climbed from 0 to 3, while shoplifting arrests rose from 0 to 2.

There were declines in some arrest categories. For example, arrests for being drunk in public dropped from 8 to 2. Fraud arrests dropped from 2 to 0.

Because those arrests have been so few, White said he believes the increases and decreases were random.

Overall, Berryville police responded to 1,156 incidents and calls for service from January through June. That was down from 956 for the same period last year.

Yet one call category that increased was domestic disturbances, up from 9 to 14, an increase of 55.6%. White said he thinks the increase was due largely to stresses — including financial hardships — people have undergone while staying home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most domestic problems stem from cheating on a partner or financial issues involving one person lacking trust in another, he said.

Despite being down for the first half of 2020, the police department's overall call volume has risen during the past few years as Berryville's population has increased, White said.

For that reason, he agrees with McDonald that hiring an extra officer is necessary.

More people leads to more traffic on the streets, and that causes more safety problems to which officers must respond, White reasoned.

Furthermore, officers are responding to more calls involving people suffering mental health crises — domestic violence and assaults on police officers are examples — and those incidents often take longer to resolve, he said.

"We need to make sure we can still answer calls that come in" within a reasonable amount of time, he added.

At Wednesday's meeting, Town Manager Keith Dalton told McDonald, the committee's chairwoman, that if she believes the department needs a 10th officer, a formal recommendation to hire one should be drafted for the full council and approved during the committee's next meeting at 2 p.m. Sept. 29.

"Spell out to the council why it should be a priority" over other budgeting needs, he told her.

The decision not to fund the officer for the current fiscal year was "a dollars and cents matter," Dalton said. "It will be again" in the future.

— Contact Mickey Powell at mpowell@winchesterstar.com

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