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Archive for Saturday, March 20, 1999

S POLICE CHIEF SEEKS MORE OFFICERS

March 20, 1999

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The Lawrence Police Department is a bit smaller than average, but where to find money for more growth?

Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin remembers when city residents had to have a major emergency to get emergency service.

Back then, in 1989, Lawrence was growing faster than its police department -- and so was the crime rate. The department found itself increasingly swamped.

"Response times of about three hours were common," Olin said.

That changed the next year. Lawrence voters approved a half-cent sales tax to lower property taxes and add public safety personnel. The police department added 27 new officers and response times dropped to less than 45 minutes.

The city has kept growing, though, and the number of police calls has grown with it. Lawrence officers made 85,038 service calls in 1997. That number grew to 106,946 in 1999.

"We're doing about 20 percent more work," Olin said.

Five new officers were added to the department this year -- bringing the total strength to 123 officers -- but Olin fears a return to the bad old days of 1989.

"We don't want to go back to that lack of service," he said. "We're at the point where we need a boost."

Reading the numbers

Is the Lawrence Police Department undermanned?

Certainly, the department has a relatively small number of officers. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the average American city has 2.5 officers for every 1,000 citizens.

Lawrence, with an authorized strength of 123 officers and a population of roughly 80,000 people, has a shade more than 1.5 officers for every 1,000 citizens.

Those numbers would put the city about 70 officers below the national average, a number Olin uses frequently as he makes the case for more manpower.

"It is an unrealistic expectation for us to add 70 people, and we understand that," he said.

But the city does considerably better when compared with other Midwestern cities of similar size.

According to FBI statistics, Midwestern cities with populations between 50,000 and 99,999 have an average of 1.7 officers for every 1,000 citizens. Hitting that average would give Lawrence 136 officers -- 13 more than it has now.

FBI statistics suggest the city's police force isn't unusually small. About one-third of all American cities in Lawrence's size range have a similar officer-to-citizen ratio.

That third, though, is in the bottom half of the range.

"There is no fat in this organization," said Lt. Dan Affalter, chief of detectives for the LPD.

Civilian staff

Officers are the most-noticed employees of the department, but there also are civilians on staff. And in that regard, too, Lawrence lags behind other cities.

The department has 24 full-time civilian personnel, bringing the total number of full-time employees to 147 -- about 1.8 employees per 1,000 Lawrence residents. Other similarly-sized Midwest cities average 2.1 employees.

In those cities, too, civilians make up 22.2 percent of their departments. They're just 16 percent of the LPD.

As a result, Olin said, officers here often do the work that would be done by civilians in other cities -- including some technical support, bookkeeping and supervision of parking and animal control.

"We are a very lean organization," he said, "and people are called upon to do an assortment of activities."

Olin has proposed adding civilian employees -- who are often cheaper than officers -- to the department.

For instance, they could easily replace the officers who staff the department's front desk.

"If we use civilians in that position, we could free up the five officers who have to be there on different shifts during the day," he said.

Really thin blue line

Instead, Olin said he has a department on the brink of being stretched too thin.

A half-dozen officers have left the department for other jurisdictions in the last year, he said, citing the high workload.

Affalter said his detectives are working more cases then ever and putting in "lots of overtime" to resolve them.

"Frankly, I'm surprised some of them don't burn out completely," he said. "Obviously that can't continue forever."

The detectives are getting more help from regular officers, Olin said, but that has a two-fold cost: First, officers on investigation aren't able to do their normal patrol duties. Second, the investigations often pull them outside their districts -- hurting response times to emergency calls.

"We're worried that at some point, we're going to have to stop doing some things," he said.

Those things include investigating minor crimes, working private property accidents and escorting funeral processions -- "quality of life" efforts.

"Those are the kind of times when people look at the Lawrence Police Department and say, 'We're really proud of them,'" Olin said.

"We don't want to give up those things. They bring us closer to the town."

And they help officers do their job, Affalter said. If officers don't have the time to show the flag in nonconfrontational situations, it will reduce their effectiveness.

"We've proven that taking care of the little things produces results that have an impact," he said.

Solution proposals

Representatives of several national police organizations said they had little or no information regarding the ideal size of a police force.

But Olin has an idea.

"An ideal number for our community is where we have the resources to respond to emergencies and do follow-up investigations, and still have time to do nonconfrontational, proactive engagements in our city," he said.

To fulfill that vision, he said, he could put 25 new officers to work immediately.

That's easier said than done.

For one thing, the city can't go back to the sales tax well. The two half-cent taxes imposed in 1970 and 1990 are the maximum the law allows and property tax hikes are always an unpopular idea.

And the police department budget hasn't been shrinking, said City Manager Mike Wildgen.

"The personnel costs increase every year and will keep on increasing every year," he said. "I think the city and the citizens will continue to support public safety."

But Wildgen knows the city is growing faster than the department.

"It's getting to be a major metropolitan service we're providing," he said. "I'm sure it's stretching the department."

Olin plans to ask for more officers during budget planning this spring, but he knows they will be difficult to get.

"We recognize that there's a limit to the amount of tax a citizen wants to pay. We try to use every penny given to us in the most efficient way," he said.

"That efficiency may translate, in the future, to us not rising to the level of every citizen's expectation of us."

-- Joel Mathis' phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is jmathis@ljworld.com.

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