Last Wednesday, a chunk of ceiling in a Lawrence police captain’s office came crashing down and made a mess, fortunately falling while he was out of the room.
For police, it was just another reminder that their work spaces — split between the downtown law enforcement center and an office building to the west — are less than ideal. Plans exist for a new police station, and city officials working on next year’s budget say it will be needed eventually. But when the city will be able to afford a $24 million to $30 million project to build it remains uncertain.
In the meantime, police say they are making do with cramped quarters at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center at 111 E. 11th St., which the city shares with county agencies.
'Bursting at the seams'
“We’re kind of bursting at the seams here,” said Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman. Worse, McKinley said, is that the rest of the department is spread out awkwardly over several locations, including an office building at 4820 Bob Billings Parkway that isn’t well-equipped for police business like safekeeping sensitive electronic records and interrogating suspects.
At the downtown police building, the ceiling collapse in the captain’s office Wednesday was blamed on jack hammering above, from workers replacing the roof. Rainwater leaking into the police department’s computer server area and evidence room had been collecting in buckets and trashcans for days. County maintenance officials say the new roof will fix much of that, but police say the department has outgrown that space anyway.
As the City Commission prepares for a long summer of studying budgets for 2014, Chief of Police Tarik Khatib spoke last week to a public gathering of police supporters about the department’s needs, the greatest of which was a single facility built for use by city police.
Khatib has said he also wishes he could hire enough officers to staff school resource officers at Lawrence middle schools and reconstitute the traffic units. In 2005, when the traffic units were fully staffed, they sat on problem intersections and wrote almost half of the department’s 22,000 traffic citations. Since then, those officers have had to be reassigned to patrol and other duties. And there is, as always, a long list of equipment that needs replacing and the hope of hiring more specialized civilian staff for crime analyses and information technology work.
But the city has come through with funding for police in some key areas, McKinley said.
The department has been able to hire seven more officers over the past year, and is buying new in-car cameras and computers, some of which were failing and causing problems, McKinley said. The City Commission also provided money to replace an unreliable, 24-year-old van that groups of officers had been using to serve warrants.
“We’ve been very fortunate recently,” McKinley said.
Big problems take big money
The bigger issue, McKinley said, and one that is more difficult to solve, is the lack of a single main police facility.
Lawrence’s Police Department isn’t big enough to split into precincts, as some major cities do, McKinley said. Divided as the department is now, with patrol officers working from the downtown offices and the detectives working five miles to the west, the two groups lose opportunities to talk about cases between assignments, which is how crimes get solved, McKinley said. And because the interrogation rooms at the Bob Billings Parkway offices weren't built for police work, officers sometimes have to conduct interviews in the hallways to keep suspects and victims apart from each other.
“It is, at times, embarrassing,” McKinley said.
Meanwhile, vehicles seized during investigations grow moldy in a handful of impromptu storage spaces around the city and must be cleaned at taxpayer expense. Also expensive in time and money is the constant driving between all of these locations for minor tasks, McKinley said. Hours are wasted about 20 times a year sheltering squad cars in a public parking garage when hail threatens.
The dream of Lawrence police is to have one single facility built to solve all of these basic problems. But it is, city officials say, an expensive dream.
In one of several scenarios outlined in a city study, construction of a $30 million police station, plus other personnel and equipment improvements, would cost about $42 million.
Depending on the economic climate, that would require a property tax increase of at least 4.7 mills over four years, and at least a .3 percent bump in sales tax.
With other big ticket projects on the city budget, Lawrence Mayor Mike Dever said he doesn’t foresee the City Commission finding a way to finance that police facility in the immediate future. First, the city would have to determine the exact cost and find a location for it.
But Dever, like City Commissioner Terry Riordan and other officials, said the police department would eventually have to find a new home.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” Riordan said. He said he hoped the City Commission would set a concrete timetable soon for planning and financing the project over the next several years.
“We don’t want to spend more than we have, but this is a critical need. That has to be the next big item.”