Police manpower problem in area

DeWayne Bartels

If it seems as if there is never a cop around in Metamora when you want one it’s because there are so few of them.

Manpower is a never-ending issue, area police chiefs say.

Washington Police Chief Jim Kuchenbecker was reminded of that at 11:30 p.m. July 1 when two armed men robbed the Casey’s General Store there. When the 911 call  went out every police officer on duty rushed to the scene.

The city was never unprotected, but the police department’s resources were spread thin. Off-duty officers were called in to patrol the city and cover calls coming in.

The same scenario of thinning police ranks plays out in Metamora, Washington, Morton and East Peoria every time there is an accident, a DUI or a domestic battery situation.

Kuchenbecker said he would be surprised to hear any local police chief say they have a bigger issue to deal with than manpower.

Common concern

On June 19, just moments after Dick Ganschow heard the East Peoria City Council vote 5-0 to name him police chief, he was confronted by a challenge that is going to dog him.

Belinda Young of East Peoria stood before the city council expressing her assessment of the police department’s use of manpower and lack of it.

“There are too few cars on the street during second shift,” she said. “I would guess it’s the busiest shift.”

Following the council meeting Ganschow said, “(Young) made a good point. We have to manage our manpower. We need it in the places where it’s needed,” Ganschow said.

“We need a pro-active approach. We may have to look at manpower needs.”

Kuchenbecker said he sympathized with Ganschow. Kuchenbecker said he has been fortunate to have a city council that recognize the need for public safety personnel. The chief said the FBI says a community should have 2.1 police officers per 1,000 residents.

“That would be 32 officers in Washington. We don’t need 32 right now,” he said. “It would help to have one more supervisor and four more officers ... The problem in every city is funding those positions.”

Filling police officer slots is not cheap. Kuchenbecker said it costs about $85,000 to put an officer on the street the first year. The second year the cost goes down because of the loss of training costs. But, he said, salary, benefits and pension costs keep right on going. That puts the estimated cost for an officer in his or her second year at about $75,000.

Metamora Police Chief Mike Todd said he would estimate his costs to put a newly-hired full-time officer on the street at about $75,000.

Despite the costs and the economy since 2004 the Washington Police Department has grown by five officers.

“The city has been very good at that. We have made baby steps forward,” Kuchenbecker said.

Todd has five full-time officers and two part-time officers to cover Metamora.

The Washington Police stand at 21 commissioned officers. That breaks down to the police chief, deputy chief, four commanders, a school resource officer, a detective, a DARE officer and 12 patrol officers.

Morton Police Chief Craig Hilliard said he can relate with Ganschow’s situation.

Morton is allotted 22 officers. Currently the department has 20.

“I could use a few more officers. It’s tough not to have enough officers, but you have to look at salary and benefit costs,” Hilliard said. “It’s never ending working on staffing. Things being what they are and budgets being what they are it’s a balancing act.”

More help

An initiative Kuchenbecker started, when he came to Washington in 2004, is a part-time police force that, he said, has been very helpful to the department in dealing with calls that numbered 12,015 last year. The part-time police officer team has been in place since 2007.

“We have 10 part-time officers,” Kuchenbecker said. “They have mission-specific assignments.”

Todd said he would like more officers on the street.

“I would say that with five full-time officers that is sufficient, but not what I want,” Todd said. “It still leaves us vulnerable to more overtime than I think we should be doing.”

Todd said, however, from a budgetary standpoint his city council is convinced that it is cheaper to have officers work overtime than hire more officers.  

Todd said he would like to have more part-time officers. But, he said, in part, because of training regulations they are hard to hire. He added there is an economic consideration at play as well.

“Full-time officers don’t go out looking for part-time work hardly. Overtime is so much more profitable,” he said. “It’s become a vicious circle that has caught up with us.”

Washington’s part-time officers patrol schools, homes, shopping centers and work at festivals. However, they have the same police powers as full-time officers.

The part-time officers focus largely on quality-of-life issues like code enforcement and event security. Utilizing the part-time officers helps free up the full-time force to do patrol and crime-fighting assignments.

“The part-time force is invaluable,” Kuchenbecker said. “They are paid hourly and receive no benefits. They save the taxpayers thousands of dollars.”

The Morton Police make use of auxiliary officers. The department is allotted 26 auxiliary officers. They currently have 23.

Hilliard said these officers save the village  great deal of money. He said last year auxiliary officers put in 2,800 hours of service. These officers are paid for some duties and volunteer their time for others. They receive no benefits and are paid $13.25 an hour when they are paid, far below what it costs for a full-time officer. The department has a $15,000 auxiliary officer budget as compared with a salary and benefits budget of $1.4 million for full-time officers.

“We wouldn’t have enough staff without them,” Hilliard said.

Citizen’s view

East Peoria provides a look into a common scenario communities face concerning police manpower.

Young, following the East Peoria City Council meeting where Ganschow was hired, expanded on her view of the police manpower situation in the city.

“I patrol my area and keep an eye on things,” Young said. “I know because I listen to a scanner. It’s not unusual to hear an officer clear a call and be told he has seven calls waiting.”

Young said it has become a rarity to see a squad car in her neighborhood.

“I fear patrols here will drop even further when the new downtown opens. This is an area that a couple of years ago got really bad. The police saturated this area and things turned around,” Young said. “They need to do that again.”

Police manpower is an issue former police chief Ed Papis tried unsuccessfully to address during budget talks this year. He told the City Council during his budget presentation he needed nine new officers. To get to that staffing level he suggested hiring three new officers a year for three years.

In April, East Peoria department heads got bad news when the City Council released details of the 2012-13 city budget. The $48 million budget meant a request by Papis for new vehicles and three new officers was dead. However, the mayor and other council members said finding the money for more officers is a priority.

“There’s universal support on the council to increase the police force. We just have to find a way to do it,” Commissioner Gary Densberger said.

Mayor Dave Mingus said it is “imperative” the council increase police ranks. He said the council needs to look into every corner of the city’s expenditures looking for funds that go to things that are not basic services and divert that money toward more police.

Commissioner Tim Jeffers said the city has assets for sale, including real property, that he hopes will add to the city’s bottom line.

Commissioner Daniel Decker said while the budget is tight there is sufficient funding to take care of the city’s needs.

“While we do not have stacks of money the city is secure,” Decker said. “This is a lean year, probably next year, too. But, I do see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

At the same time Decker expressed concerns about the police department not growing under this budget.

“That does us no good if the city is not as safe as it could be,” Decker said.

Ganschow expanded on this topic later with TimesNewspapers. Even with his administrative experience, Ganschow said, he will face challenges, and has already figured out the biggest one.

“My biggest challenge will be managing the rapid growth in East Peoria without a rapidly growing force,” Ganschow said. “It’s really going to be tough. We need to integrate the community into our efforts. The community has to partner with us fighting crime. Crime is not just a police problem. Every job we have requires manpower.”

Young agreed.

She said her frustration with less than maximum manpower in the police department has been building over time. Young said she would support higher taxes to pay for more police on the streets.

“I think we have to raise taxes for everyone’s welfare,” Young said. “Of course that will put me in the minority. This is putting our lives and police officer’s lives at risk.”