Decatur police officer numbers are decreasing: Is there a better pathway for public safety?
As part of the 2019 budget, the Decatur City Council approved funding for 153 police officers including the ability to over hire throughout the year in order to maintain those 153 officers. Contrary to city council policy, there are currently 144 officers, 6% less than budgeted, even though the city is predicting an approximate $2 million surplus in its general fund for 2019.
ONE SHORT-TERM CONSEQUENCE TO FEWER POLICE OFFICERS MAY BE SLOWER RESPONSE TIMES - There are likely many reasons that response times (which includes dispatch delay and travel time) can be slower. One reason may be fewer numbers of police officers. In 2014, there were 162 police officers at year’s end, 58,034 calls for service, and response time for all calls combined averaged 18.61 minutes. Five years later, in 2018, the number of police officers decreased to 153 by the end of the year (6% decrease), there were 53,312 calls for service (8% decrease), and response time for all calls combined averaged 34.05 minutes (with highest priority response times increasing from 3.94 minutes to 6.46 minutes, medium priority calls increasing from 10.53 to 12.81 minutes, and lowest priority calls from 23.48 to 47.69 minutes).
HOW WILL PUBLIC SAFETY BE IMPACTED IF THE NUMBER OF POLICE OFFICERS GOES DOWN AND THE NUMBER OF CALLS GOES UP? - Year to date in 2019, the number of calls for service is has increased compared to 2018. Between January – August 2018, there were 31,143 calls for service compared to 36,372 calls for service January – August 2019 (17% increase). Thus, at least in the short term, the fewer number of police officers in 2019 comes at a time when the number of calls for service is increasing.
CAN COMMUNITY LIAISON OFFICERS MITIGATE IMPACTS OF OVERALL FEWER NUMBERS OF POLICE OFFICERS? - It has been suggested that community liaison officers, a new position to be formed by the city, can complete some of the duties performed by police officers such as administrative tasks. However, it is unclear which duties of police officers will be taken over by community liaison officers that will enhance public safety. I have had the privilege of being on six ride-alongs with the police over the last two and a half years. During my most recent ride-along on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I was at the scenes of a shooting, an alleged sexual assault, and a brawl that took place at a three-year old’s birthday party in a public establishment. It should be the responsibility of highly-trained, sworn police officers to both prevent and solve such violent crimes. Furthermore, while it is possible that community liaison officers can compliment the work police officers do, initial indications are that the 2020 budget will have a net decrease in overall police department staffing.
ONE REASON WHY THE NUMBER OF POLICE OFFICERS MAY BE DECREASING IS PENSION LIABILITIES – The city faces significant challenges in funding rising pension costs and the city council has the responsibility to take action to address them. As examples, the combined net pension liability for police and fire pension funds is $135 million, with the net liability for the police pension fund at $62 million (62% funded) and the net liability for the fire pension fund at $73 million (51% funded). In 2009, the city’s required funding of police pensions was $2,945,533 and fire pensions was $2,969,369. In 2018, required funding of police pensions was $4,732,230 (61% increase) and fire pensions was $5,632,884 (90% increase). Police and fire pensions are currently funded through property taxes (as is the library, municipal band, and payment of general obligation bonds and subsequent interest) and property taxes have increased 23% from 2009 to 2018. Notwithstanding the above, it is unclear that reducing the total staffing of the police department is the best option for maintaining the highest level of service from those responsible for the public’s safety and it can be argued that paying for pensions of individuals that risk their health and lives to protect our safety and property is an appropriate expense to be paid through property taxes.
THE GREATEST THREAT TO DECATUR IS A DECLINING POPULATION NOT RISING PENSION COSTS – Decatur has one of the fastest shrinking populations in the U.S. with the population declining over 6% since 2010. As the city council is preparing a budget for 2020, the council should focus on initiatives that will grow the population and increase quality of life for those who currently live here. Public safety must be the city’s top priority, and it is unclear how decreasing the number of individuals that protect the public betters the city’s greatest asset, the people who call Decatur home.