Policing the Patriotic Festival could make Norfolk’s officer shortage worse, law enforcement advocate says

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The understaffed Norfolk Police Department will beef up its manpower with officers from neighboring agencies during this weekend’s Patriotic Festival — in the city for the first time after a move from Virginia Beach.

But the Norfolk chapter of the Police Benevolent Association fears the security needs for this festival, and another in June, could dampen officer morale and worsen the department’s ongoing staffing problem as officers’ vacation time is canceled and some are called upon to work 12-hour shifts for seven days straight.

NPD reached out to police agencies across Hampton Roads for assistance ahead of the Memorial Day weekend festival due to the department’s officer shortage, said Sgt. William Pickering, a Norfolk department spokesperson. The department, which has a sworn strength of 776, is short 239 officers, Pickering said.

The Norfolk Sheriff’s Office and Newport News Police Department have agreed assist the NPD with security during the three-day event.

Frank Been, steering co-chair of the Norfolk PBA, said assistance from other agencies is appreciated, but does not improve the morale of Norfolk officers who are being redeployed and having days off canceled to man the streets. He said officers whose leave and days off were canceled for the Patriotic Festival will also have time off canceled during Harborfest the weekend of June 10-12.

“That means those burned-out officers will not get one weekend off with their families during their entire day-shift rotation,” Been said.

The Norfolk PBA also is concerned for the safety of officers who will be handling emergency calls in other parts of the city as personnel are being pulled from across the police force — including patrol officers, detectives, administrative officers and the training division — for the festival.

“It is unknown as to how readily staffed our district cars will be during this weekend,” Been said. “We can only hope that the calls for service are minimal for our officers working the streets.”

The Patriotic Festival, which celebrates Hampton Roads’ military communities, has historically drawn around 80,000 attendees to Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront in past years. City officials announced in October that the festival would relocate to downtown Norfolk’s Town Point Park and Scope.

Pickering said he could not comment on the specifics of the department’s “robust” security plan or staffing for the weekend, but said roughly 200 Norfolk officers would work the event throughout the weekend.

“It is not uncommon for police agencies to request assistance with large scale events,” Pickering said, referencing Harborfest, for which Norfolk police partner with several outside agencies to provide security.

Been said officers have expressed frustration to him after the city took on an event of this magnitude just weeks before Harborfest during the staffing crisis. He said he would not be surprised if more officers resigned or retired early, burned out from working back-to-back events.

By this weekend’s end, some officers will have worked 12-hour shifts for a seven-day stretch — and in two weeks, they will have to do it all over again, Been said

“We’re asking these folks to spend entire shifts on their feet in the heat, in black uniforms, wearing body armor and full kit with no days off,” Been said. “You’re just courting potential fatigue-induced overuse injuries on officers who have not been readily conditioned for this level of long-term exertion.”

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said the department will lend 12-15 officers and “several supervisors” to Norfolk during the festival, including himself and Assistant Chief Brandon Creswell.

“We have assisted others in the past, as they have assisted us,” Drew said. “I am not comparing ourselves to other agencies, and I certainly understand staffing challenges, but our current staffing allows us to provide assistance to our brothers and sisters in Norfolk to help with a successful and safe event.”

Jamie Bastas, spokesperson for Norfolk Sheriff’s Office, said she could not comment on how many deputies would be assisting with security, but said the agency often provides on-duty and off-duty assistance during large scale events because it is “100% team Norfolk.”

“If we are asked by our law enforcement partners for assistance and to provide support for the citizens of Norfolk and the community, we will gladly assist if we have the manpower to do so,” Bastas said.

Ira Agricola, president of the Patriotic Festival, said he is confident in the multi-agency, comprehensive plan for the festival. He said organizers have worked with a private security consultant for months to develop a security plan that includes NPD, the sheriff’s office, Homeland Security and private security.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to have a very secure event, a safe event, and everyone can enjoy themselves,” Agricola said.

Caitlyn Burchett, 727-267-6059, caitlyn.burchett@virginiamedia.com

Staff writer Gavin Stone contributed to this report.