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Archive for Friday, December 28, 2012

2013 Preview: Law enforcement and courts wary of budgets while planning upgrades

December 28, 2012

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Douglas County's law enforcement agencies and courts are looking forward to technology upgrades in 2013 even as they warily await the next year's round of state, county and city budget discussions.

Upgrades to emergency communication and court filing systems are already approved and set to begin in the new year, while other improvements await funding. The biggest question for many judges and law enforcement leaders in Lawrence is whether the next year's budgets will give them money to fully staff their high-tech agencies.

Here's more about new tools and key issues for law enforcement, public safety agencies, and courts in 2013:

Douglas County District Court

The court will install a new system next year allowing parties to file cases electronically. The system is one of four pilot programs across the state. Chief District Judge Robert Fairchild said electronic filing won't reach everyone all at once, but will start March 1 with major court users, such as the district attorney and major civil litigators, before expanding to others.

"In the beginning, there's going to be some headaches," Fairchild said. "But it's going to save all kinds of time."

The judges will be watching the Legislature next year to see what kind of funding it provides to the court. Last fiscal year, funding shortfalls forced the court to put employees on furlough and close its doors for a day. Two years before that, the court closed for five days.

Fairchild he and the other judges will also follow discussions in the Legislature about changing the appointment process for appellate court judges. He said he approved of the the current system and disliked the idea of introducing more politics into the courts.

"Who do you want to be the judges?" he said. "Hopefully, you want the best lawyers. You want people who believe in the rule of law."

Lawrence Police Department

The police department graduated 13 new recruits Dec. 6, but Police Chief Tarik Khatib said that's just enough to keep up with attrition over the next year. The department remains one officer shy of the 150 it should have, he said, which will be helped by another police academy in June. Khatib said he'd like to make the recruiting process more regular, and even add more officers, detectives and crime analysts to attempt to reduce Lawrence's crime rate, to put it more in line with neighboring cities such as Lenexa and Overland Park.

Khatib said the department needs resources to combat rising trends in financial crimes and mental health crises in Lawrence. Credit card ripoffs, identity thefts and internet scams are increasing, he said, and the department's clearance rate is too low. The department has not been able to dedicate a detective to solving them full time.

At the same time, the number of mental-illness-related calls officers have responded to each year has doubled over the past decade, reaching 1,651 in 2010 along with 369 attempted suicides. Each one of these cases, Khatib said, can be very complicated and time-consuming, leaving officers less time to clamp down on violations such as drunk driving.

Talks at City Hall about a new facility that could house the police department's patrol and investigation divisions under one roof have gained support from city leaders this year, but there's been no action yet. Khatib said he's made his case and is waiting to see if the money will be there.

"Of course, everything depends on the economy," Khatib said. "And on the budget."

Douglas County Emergency Communications Center

The emergency communications center will undergo three major overhauls in the coming year, upgrading the 911 phone system, the emergency call routing system, and the radio systems that serve all county first responders.

"It's a big year for communications in Douglas County," said Scott Ruf, director of the county communications center.

Ruf said it was unusual for such an agency to do all three at once. Altogether, it will cost about $8 million.

Changes to the radio system will bring Douglas County up to the national standard for emergency communication, converting all law enforcement and emergency radios from analog to digital and making it much easier for different agencies to communicate directly.

Douglas County Sheriff's Office

Sheriff Ken McGovern hired a new director for the re-entry program at the Douglas County Jail, to reevaluate the program for the Sheriff's Office in the coming year. The re-entry program is designed to prepare jail inmates for release and reduce the chance they'll offend again. Director Mike Brouwer will be looking to improve on the program's 22 percent recidivism rate, which is much lower than the state's.

Next year, the Sheriff's Office is planning more drug takeback programs in the spring and fall. The takebacks collect unneeded prescription drugs from residents to keep them out of the wrong hands.

McGovern said his office is will take applications for another citizen's academy at the beginning of the year, continuing a program to teach residents about how law enforcement works.

Douglas County District Attoney's Office

District Attorney Charles Branson said he, like Chief District Judge Fairchild, is worried about the court's budget. He said he also shared the judges' concerns about the Legislature's efforts to change the state judicial selection process, which he said works well now.

"We want quality, educated, well-intentioned judges," he said. "We're extremely fearful of pulling knee-jerk political reactions into the Supreme Court, or even the appellate court, process."

Branson said he hoped Police Chief Khatib gets some of the resources he'll be asking the city for, especially if that includes downtown surveillance cameras and improvements to the audio and video equipment police take out on patrol.

"We're a very technology-saavy society now, and people expect that," he said. "The problem is, it takes a lot of money to maintain those things."

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire and Medical

Douglas County's fire and emergency medical services will be inspected for re-accreditation by the Center for Public Excellence, beginning in the last week of January. The department has been accredited by the national non-profit public services advising organization for the past five years.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Chief Mark Bradford said inspectors from across the country will review every facet of Fire Medical operations, from fire suppression and hazardous material procedures to staffing and finances.

While the department has long used national standards of firefighting and emergency response, Bradford said, periodic reviews help the department improve and work more efficiently, especially when tax dollars are tight.

"Just because we're doing it doesn't mean we're doing it the best way," he said.

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