Benjamin Patton | The Daily Star Charles Whitmore, a patrol officer with the Oneonta Police Department, walks along Main Street in Oneonta on Monday.

Oneonta police officers are patrolling again on eight-hour shifts, as the city has ended an extended experiment of 12-hour work days.

The shifts were switched June 30 after a three-month trial that started in September and was lengthened for further implementation and evaluation.

“The 12-hour shifts do not lend themselves to a strong operational effectiveness,” Police Chief Dennis Nayor said in a memorandum distributed recently to the department, Common Council members and city officials. Staffing “dead spots,” lack of flexibility and longer daily tours create compromises to safety, he said.

“I had to make a decision to determine if it would be in the best interests of the department and our community,” Nayor said in a telephone interview last week.

Nayor said he made the decision to resume the eight-hour shifts though the police officers union favored the 12-hour schedule because of time off it allowed.

Under the 12-hour schedule, officers worked two days, then had three days off.

Ralph Purdy, president of the United Federation of Police Officers Inc., said Monday that the 12-hour shifts saved the city money in overtime and sick time.

Dan Nulton, the Oneonta officers union representative who is on vacation, has more details, according to Purdy, who said he would check with Nulton on whether the chief made a unilateral decision that could be grounds for filing a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

Joseph Steflik Jr., attorney negotiating for the city, said the city and police officers union have a contract that calls for eight-hour shifts. The contract expiration date was Dec. 31, but under PERB regulations, officers continue working under terms of the previous agreement, Steflik said.

The 12-hour scheduling was a test that had a sunset clause, said Steflik, a lawyer with Coughlin & Gerhart. The city gave the officers union the option of 10-hour shifts, he said, and otherwise the agreement reverts to eight-hour scheduling.

“I don’t see any basis for an improper practice charge,” Steflik said Monday.

Nayor made a recommendation about the shifts, Kathy Wolverton, Oneonta city personnel director, said Monday, and the city administration, led by the city manager, made the decision to go ahead with the change.

Wolverton said the process began last year under former City Manager Michael Long, who retired in May. Acting City Manager Meg Hungerford reviewed the changes at last week’s Common Council meeting.

“The return to eight-hour shifts, as defined in the union contract, has been implemented,” Hungerford said in her report. “The possibility of 10-hour shifts remains an option during negotiations.”

Third Ward Council Member David Rissberger, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, didn’t return a message left at his home Monday night.

The next contract negotiation meetings for officers, and separately, for sergeants, are Aug. 7, Steflik said.

The 12-hour trial period applied to patrol officers but not to detectives, who are PBA members, or sergeants, who have a separate union.

In September, Nayor said he was “neutral” on implementing 12-hour shifts.

Police shifts now are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m; 4 p.m. to midnight; and midnight to 8 a.m. The 12-hour shifts had started at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The department has 15 police officers, Nayor said. The officers liked the 12-hour structure and the time off it provided, Nayor said, and he was sensitive to “those very important considerations.”

However, the 12-hour shifts didn’t allow for adequate options to hold officers over for duty when needed, Nayor said. Police must be alert, said the chief, who questioned the long-term duress of 12-hour shifts and the resulting impact on alertness and safety.

Besides assessing operations, Nayor said, his evaluation included discussions with police supervisory staff and union personnel.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Nayor said. “It’s my job to make tough decisions.”

Nayor said other issues tied to the 12-hour shifts were “a compromise in the principles of unity of command” and “schedule conversion for training.”

``In trying to find a workable solution, we developed a way to make 10-hour shifts work,” Nayor said in his memo. “This would have provided for three days off in a row, created more flexibility, filled the dead spots, and lessened the amount of hours worked consistently to decrease fatigue and some of the safety concerns.”

Mayor Dick Miller said the 10-hour schedule would have eliminated a problem of a command change in the middle of a shift. The command structure issue is one being addressed as the department seeks accreditation, he said Monday night.

When officers were asked to vote on the 10-hour shift proposal, they voted in favor of the 12-hour schedule, Miller said.

Detective Eric Berger, president of the Oneonta Police Benevolent Association, said last week that he couldn’t comment based on “interdepartmental reasons” and referred questions to Nulton.

The scheduling trial, which started Sept. 9, originated from the city’s Police Department Task Force, which was charged to study staffing levels and other departmental issues. Union and city officials agreed that test was timely because of the pending expiration of the PBA contract with the city.

The task force identified a 12-hour-shift schedule among measures that might help in recruiting candidates and improving retention among young officers, Miller said previously.

The pilot evaluation was to consider whether longer shifts causes fatigue that has a negative impact on coverage, productivity and performance of duties, city and union officials said last year. A goal of the 12-hour shifts was that overtime would decrease.

Last year, police officer union members approved trying the 12-hour shift schedule by a majority vote, Berger said. The city of Oneonta and the PBA both had to be in favor of 12-hour shifts if the plan was to become permanent, he said.

Nayor pledged in his memo to work to create a department that provides “proper equipment, training, work environment, and opportunities for all.”

“There are times when we must agree to disagree,” Nayor said. “And this is one of those times.”

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