In 2014 the town found a solution to that conundrum when it allowed police department employees to sleep between shifts in an unused town-owned home in Holbrook-Palmer Park. Speakers at the meeting said they had as many as seven officers and dispatchers (divided between day and night shifts) daily using the three bedrooms and other places to sleep in the house.
But the agreement with the Atherton Police Officers Association allowing the use of the house has now ended because the town needs the house back.
At the suggestion of the council, Police Chief Steve McCulley moved into the house while he and his wife tried, without luck, to find an affordable local rental, City Manager George Rodericks said. He said the chief and his wife were sharing the house with the dispatchers and officers, but some issues arose "that made the continued shared use not feasible." The council then offered the residence to the chief and his wife as their home for a $24,000 a year reduction in salary. After a 30-day notice, the dispatchers and police officers could no longer use the house effective April 30.
Sgt. Jeff Rickel told the council that he probably would not have taken a job with the Atherton Police Department if sleeping at the town-owned house was not an option. He has a three-hour round-trip commute, and tries to arrive a half-hour early for his 12-hour shifts. "That would be a 15.5-hour day," he told the council. The home was often "packed" with officers and dispatchers using it between shifts, Rickel said.
Now, he said, he's pondering his options. "I'm thinking of buying a camper to put on the back of my pickup truck," he said. "It's definitely a conundrum for me."
Officer Harris Smiler, a new Atherton police officer, had a similar story. In a letter to the council he said he used the town-owned home at least two or three nights a week — and sometimes as many as five when working overtime — to avoid the commute to his home in Oakland.
"The Gilmore House was a sanctuary and safe haven to me," he wrote.
Plus, Smiler wrote, staying in town gave him time to do off-shift duties such as organizing the property room, instructing others in using Tasers and serving as treasurer of the Police Officers Association.
Others said that even if they don't need it, having a place for fellow officers to sleep makes everyone safer in a job involving firearms and split-second decisions. Officers also sometimes have to stay beyond their shifts to appear in court, they said.
Janelle Miller, a dispatcher and records clerk who has worked for Atherton since 1997, lives in Brentwood. It takes between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours for her to drive the 70 miles. "There isn't much time to sleep," she said.
Erica Johnson, the town's community services officer, said that staying in the town-owned house instead of making exhausted drives home allowed her husband and 10-year-old daughter to know "I was somewhere safe, with people who kept me safe."
Council members were sympathetic and asked Rodericks to explore possible resolutions, including offering McCulley a stipend so he could afford to pay higher rent and return the house to its previous use.
"It's absolutely critical that we provide some kind of place for them to rest," said council member Rick DeGolia.
Council member Elizabeth Lewis said she feared the town's proposal to convert two rooms in another park building to sleeping quarters was not enough. It is, she said, like trying to "put a tiny little (surgical tape strip) on a wound that needs stitching up."
Lewis said the town might consider eliminating 12-hour shifts, and could look into renting a house in a nearby community for the officers and dispatchers to use.
"There may be other solutions we haven't thought of yet," said council member Mike Lempres.
Other ideas posited by council members included turning an entire park building into short-term living quarters and exploring the legal ramifications of Atherton residents offering housing in their homes or guest houses.
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