WALLA WALLA — The number of Walla Walla police officers has declined the past couple of years, just as the crime rate has inched upward along with calls for service.
Police Chief Scott Bieber doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.
And he’s concerned that any further cuts in personnel that could occur because of future budget constraints would eviscerate a department that not too long ago was a proactive, crime-prevention organization.
In 2009 and 2010, the department boasted 45 commissioned officers. But because veterans on the force retired and the city can’t afford to fill the vacancies, the number now is down to 41.
Once a two-person division, the crime prevention office has been slashed to a half-time position. Reductions have been made in crime victim advocacy programs and support staff; the Crime Free Housing program could be in jeopardy. A vacant captain’s slot has resulted in less planning and supervision.
“We’re just barely hanging on as far as I’m concerned,” Bieber said this fall. “We’re at a bare minimum when it comes to preventing crime.”
Next year’s budget proposed by City Manager Nabiel Shawa allows the department to maintain current service levels — just barely. But final adoption by the City Council won’t occur until next month.
If the current proposed funding is slashed, the last vestiges of proactive programs will disappear, according to Bieber.
“We would be in a world of hurt,” he said.
The problem stems from a lack of sufficient tax revenue coming into the city. Therefore, Bieber’s initial marching orders from Shawa in preparing the department’s preliminary 2013-14 biennial budget was to keep expenses to this year’s level.
But no increase would mean decreases.
That’s because nothing can be done to keep expenses in some budget line items from continuing to rise. Things like salary increases, step raises, more required for state-mandated retirement contributions, and fulfilling previously agreed-upon contractual commitments with the police union need to be paid, Bieber said. Also, medical insurance premiums and replacement costs of vehicles keep going up.
This year’s police budget was $7.67 million. Bieber was relieved when Shawa proposed an increase to $7.81 million for 2013.
“What that does is it pretty much keeps us where we are right now,” he said in a recent interview.
Without the increase, staff positions such as the animal control officer, domestic violence coordinator, parking enforcement officer and the half-time crime prevention office would have been considered for elimination.
“I’m optimistic at this point that 2013 won’t see any further cuts,” Bieber said.
When earlier in the budget process it appeared the department’s spending next year would be frozen at this year’s level, he said: “Sometimes, the public thinks we’re wasting money. Two years ago, this budget took a huge hit with positions that were lost and not replaced. Any fat has been trimmed.
“A lot of the proactive programs that (former Police Chief Chuck Fulton) established that helped reduce the crime level are pretty much gone.”
In 1998, the city Police Department employed 39 commissioned officers. That number grew to 43 by the year 2000 because of a one-tenth of 1 percent sales-tax hike approved by county commissioners to fund community policing programs.
The Walla Walla police force grew to 44 in 2005 and peaked at 45 the last two years of the decade.
While the number of officers grew, the total crime rate declined more than 30 percent. But last year, when the commissioned force was reduced to 42, both violent and property crimes rose a total of nearly 8 percent from 2010.
Bieber says he sees a correlation between the reduction in the number of commissioned officers and an increasing number of crimes — especially considering the loss of crime prevention staff. “It’s not viable to take officers off the street for prevention,” he added.
Seven or eight officers usually are assigned to an eight-hour shift. But that number can be reduced to as few as three and a supervisor on days with tight schedules due to vacations, illness or training.
In addition to increasing crime last year, calls for service are trending up significantly, from about 18,000 in 2011 to an estimated 20,506 by the end of this year.
Officers also are finding fewer opportunities for what are known as “quick calls” — self-initiated contacts such as bar checks and traffic stops. In 2011, more than 20,700 were logged. This year, it’ll be lucky if 18,000 are completed, according to Police Department statistics.
“They’ve slipped down because there’s not enough time for an officer to do the (preventive) types of things we’re supposed to do,” Bieber said.
He and others also pointed out that police operations in the 21st Century are more sophisticated and complicated — therefore more expensive — than in years’ past.
“The science in law enforcement has helped greatly, but increased the complexity of the investigations,” Bieber said. Many crimes these days are solved through time-consuming computer analysis. “Walla Walla’s way out in front with computers. But it’s not cheap,” he added.
Capt. Terry Heisey agreed: “We used to not have to deal with computer-assisted crimes. Today the requirements are much higher.”
And Steve Ruley, currently the manager of the 911 City/County Emergency Dispatch Center, said the investigative work required at the scene of a crime has become much more exhaustive because of technological viability. Proper collection of fingerprints and DNA is vital and now much more likely to lead to arrests and convictions.
“But it takes more time on the street to the lab,” he said. Then there’s further data to track.
Bieber also wants to reach out to the community, forming partnerships to reduce gang activity. Police teams of varying numbers have targeted gangs in recent years. The team now consists of two members.
“We threw resources at it early,” Heisey said. “We don’t control it now, but we have a better handle on it. But it reaches the point you’re never going to catch up (if resources are depleted).”
The department also is aware that crime can adversely affect the city that relies heavily on a tourism industry.
“We feel our responsibility to the economic development of the area,” Bieber said. “It can affect all of us if we don’t have a community that’s inviting.”
Which, again, leads to citizen involvement.
“How do we get a handle on (gang enforcement)?” he asked rhetorically. “How do we get the community to support intervention and prevention efforts?”
Regaining an effective connection to residents will require more resources, Bieber said.
If cuts are mandated by a stagnant budget, officers will carry on patrol and investigative duties.
“But it will be a pretty bare-bones police department.”
Last year, the 42 commissioned Walla Walla police officers were below the average of 47 for cities roughly our size in the state. However, the number per thousand residents, totaling 1.33, was above the 1.27 state average.
Local officials have not had an opportunity to analyze demographics — such as the poverty rates, education, unemployment, geography, etc. — to calculate the optimum number of officers for the city.
They’re just trying to keep their heads above water and live within their means.
Ruley said, “Police staffing levels are driven by the community.”
That’s why the department wants taxpayers to know that crime is ticking up while fewer officers maintain patrols or investigations.
“I never have been a person who says there’s a magic number of officers per 1,000,” Bieber said.
“But if we ever got back to 45, we could do some things we used to do.”
Terry McConn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8319.