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Votes

Chief Defends Request for More Officers

Chief asks for more patrol officers from City Council.

When City Manager James Hartmann announced his proposed budget on March 8, one of its selling points was the addition of new police officers to work patrol duty.

"We're serious about keeping crime down," he said at the press conference announcing the budget for fiscal year 2006. "That's why we've added 14 officers on patrol."

While crime is down in some areas, it has increased in other areas. And the Alexandria Police Department is struggling to keep officers on patrol. That's why city leaders want to invest $1 million to bring additional police officers on patrol, a move that would free officers to work specialized beats and engage in training exercises that are now limited because of minimum staffing requirements for patrol beats.

CRIME STATISTICS for 2004 show several changes from 2003. While most crime is down, violent crime is on the increase: rapes increased by 20 percent, aggravated assaults increased by 11 percent and robbery increased by 5 percent. Only one category of violent crime — homicide — showed a decline in 2004, decreasing by 50 percent. The city had four homicides in 2003 and two in 2004. Although violent crime has increased, overall crime has decreased: larceny is down 22 percent, burglary is down by 14 percent and auto theft is down 1 percent.

At Tuesday night's work session of the City Council, the chief of police addressed a growing need for officers on patrol.

"We're really not staffed to fill the needs that we have and that's why we are here tonight," Chief of Police Charles Samarra told council members. City Hall was filled with police, many in uniform, who attended the work session to lend their support to the chief's request. "I can't tell you how many times that police officers have asked for time off and I've had to tell them no because we have to meet minimum staffing levels."

The minimum staffing levels have created a constant level of officers on patrol: 16 on the day shift, 10 on the evening shift and 15 on the midnight shift. For Friday and Saturday nights, minimum patrol numbers increase to 12 on the evening shift and 16 on the midnight shift.

Because the Alexandria Police Department doesn't have enough officers to staff minimum levels, officers are often asked to work a patrol shift on their days off to meet demands. Although the police chief asked the city government for 20 more patrol officers to meet this demand, the city manager proposed 14 additional officers — eight more officers by August and six more officers by February. The city manager estimates that the cost of the additional patrol officers will be $1.1 million.

"I don't think there's any member up here who doesn't support this request," said Mayor William Euille. "We are very appreciative of the service that you provide for our city."

IN THE PAST DECADE, the Alexandria Police Department has added several functions that have drained the pool of officers available for patrol: gang intervention, school resource officers, community policing, computer crime units, domestic violence prevention and residential police officers. The chief credits these specialized positions with preventing crime in the city.

"Part of the reason that crime is down is because of these specialized units," he told City Council. "The reason that calls for service are down is because we have specialized units that are out in the community."

Since 2001, the Police Department has engaged in a number of training exercises to increase preparedness. While in training, these officers are not available for patrol. Areas of training include: weapons of mass destruction, rapid response to terrorist threats, security evaluations, and certification of self-contained breathing equipment.

"We have to take officers off the street to do this training," said the chief. "The world has changed since 9/11, and we've got to change with it."

TO SAVE MONEY, the police department has eliminated two programs: Drug Abuse Resistance Education and the Alexandria Police Athletic League. Eliminating DARE will save the city $63,000 and eliminating APAL will save the city $61,500. Another cost-saving measure that the chief of police has implemented is not filling several vacant positions, a technique that has created attrition of service for city residents.

"We've had to eliminate two very popular programs," the chief said. "We just don't have the staffing to keep these programs. I've been holding vacancies since October because I just can't afford to take officers off patrol."

Other temporary measures have also been taken to increase the number of officers who are on patrol to meet the minimum standards. For example, officers who participate in the Community Oriented Policing Services program are asked to assist with patrol beats for four nights a week. In addition, officers on the Street Crime Unit are asked to assist with patrol calls for service one evening per week. The police chief described these as "stop-gap measures," and said that funding for more officers on patrol will ease the burden that has led to these staffing procedures.

With the city's population continually growing, police officers must also grow if the city government wants to maintain the ratio of citizen to officer. Currently, the city has 2.2 police officers for every 1,000 residents. If current trends in population increases continue, the Police Department will need to add two additional officers every year.