Wednesday, August 4, 2021

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Retiring police chief proposes upgrades, fencing, security measures for dept. headquarters

The lure of impending retirement hasn’t kept Burlington’s outgoing police chief from taking on some rather prodigious housekeeping before his final ten-four later this spring.

Jeff Smythe, who has announced that he’ll step down from his position as chief in May, appeared before Burlington’s city council on Tuesday to present a two-part proposal to upgrade and renovate the police department’s headquarters along Front Street.

The dpartmental home improvements that Smythe shared with the council include a number of security enhancements which the police chief said should be kickstarted immediately. He also presented an inventory of deferred maintenance needs that, together with the aforementioned safety improvements, would cost the city nearly $2.7 million to consummate.

Smythe traced the inspiration for his first set of upgrades to a couple of recent episodes that he said have highlighted serious gaps in the security of the police department’s headquarters. He recalled that the first moment of reckoning occurred last May when someone scheduled a “riot” on Facebook to take place in front of the agency’s HQ. Although the proposed upheaval never materialized, it raised some concerns about the building’s vulnerability, which Smythe said were heightened last fall when another incident tore a much more literal hole in the police department’s sense of security.

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Smythe reminded the council about the damage that the agency’s headquarters sustained in November when a mentally ill man


Read newspaper’s editorial reaction to the police chief’s suggestions: https://alamancenews.com/for-bpd-no-armed-camp-needed-not-even-a-fenced-one/


deliberately plowed a minivan through its front entrance.

“It really gave us pause about what we need to do to protect the building,” the city’s police chief conceded when he addressed the council during a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday. “This vehicle threat is a very real possibility in this day and age.”

Smythe recalled that, as a temporary expedient, his department has moved a couple of cumbersome planters in front of the building’s main entrance to stop other vehicles from ramrodding their way through the door. He said that the department eventually plans to replace these oversized planters with less conspicuous “bollards,” or deeply-rooted metal posts, which would be spaced closely enough to halt a vehicle. Smythe insisted that these cylindrical posts would be “sleek,” “aesthetically pleasing” and would avoid the fortified, “militaristic” appearance of other barriers.

These two planters at the entrance to the Burlington Police Department in downtown Burlington would be replaced by steel “bollards,” based on recommendations outgoing police chief Jeff Smythe gave the city council this week.

The city’s police chief also suggested the need for fencing and gates around the municipal parking lot that’s next to the police station as well as a redesign of the parking area itself to accommodate the new fencing.

Smythe told the council that he and his colleagues have tentatively priced the proposed bollards at $150,000, with another $120,000 needed to fence in the building, $450,000 to install gates, and $114,600 to reconfigure the parking lot. All told, he told the council that these upgrades would cost the city about $834,600.

“We don’t expect any decisions tonight,” the police chief went on to assure the council. “We’re just throwing this out for some consideration.”

Smythe also gave the council a preview of some additional improvements that may be in order if the city decides to squeeze some more life out of the police department’s existing headquarters. He insisted that this 35-year-old structure can continue to house the police force if the city invests $1,845,000 into window and roof repairs, a new boiler and HVAC system, a complete rebuild of the front lobby, and various other improvements. Smythe added that some of these maintenance needs had been deferred on the assumption that the city’s police force would move into a new headquarters – a prospect that had previously appealed to the council but which the police admitted has lost some of its luster due to the cost of the project.

Some of Smythe’s estimates raised the eyebrows of Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis, who has recently taken up a side gig as a general contactor. Baltutis was particularly skeptical about the $200,000 which the police chief had budgeted to rebuild the police station’s lobby. Baltutis also urged the police chief to consider ways to fence in the parking lot without making the building look unapproachable.

In order to assuage the mayor’s concerns, Smythe promised to share the actual plans for his proposed upgrades at one of the council’s upcoming work sessions. The police chief added that the “open façade” directly in front of the police station would “remain unchanged” amid the other proposed transformations.

The police chief’s suggestions also raised some misgivings for councilman Jim Butler, who argued that the city shouldn’t completely abandon the idea of a new headquarters because of its current financial crunch.

“I think we have a responsibility to think bigger picture,” Butler told the rest of the council, “and I would like to see us at least have that discussion.”

Butler’s entreaties appeared to fizzle with Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, who insisted that the city isn’t in a position to foot the $35 million needed to rehouse its police force. Meanwhile, the police chief’s plan to eke more life out of the existing headquarters seemed like a winner to Burlington’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes, who declared the proposed renovations “a bargain” compared to other capital projects like the ongoing restoration of Burlington’s antique Dentzel Carousel.

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