Monday, July 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

Cops face shuffle to cover calls under tight budget

Tacomans will not likely see much change at the Tacoma Police Department, officials say, despite the planned loss of another 34 positions under the proposed budget for the next two years. The big hit to the department came last year, when it lost the same number during the current budget shortfall. The proposed cuts this time will mean slower administrative duties caused by the reshuffling of 16 officers to patrol duties, so the same number of patrol officers is expected in 2013-14 as there are now. The department was already at minimal staffing levels and that will continue. “We are going to do the best we can do with the staffing we have,” Police Chief Donald Ramsdell said But the cuts will mean $4.1 million to aid the city’s efforts to fill a $63 million projected shortfall facing the city. “This has not been an easy year given the situation we were being faced with,” Ramsdell said, noting that many officers have already left the department for other law enforcement agencies or retired to avoid the possibility of being laid off under the planned budget.

“As we move through these reductions, we are trying to be as strategic as possible, so we can provide our core services,” Ramsdell said, noting that the 339 commissioned officers in the department is likely the “new normal” for years to come. Tacoma has 439 commissioned and non-commissioned personnel, and will drop to 373 starting in January if the budget passes as presented. Commissioned officers will make up 339 of those ranks. Residents will not see much change, officials say, because the most visible police programs, patrol, investigations and community liaison officers, will remain. Those programs hit minimum staffing levels last year and will remain that way through 2015. The city, for example, needs 160 patrol officers to handle emergency calls, and staffing levels are set for about 165 for the $156.3 million police budget for the next biennium. Non-emergency calls for non-injury accidents and small crimes might see delays or be handled through phoned-in reports rather than through dispatched officers, however. So-called “self-initiated activities” by officers and other proactive and targeted patrol time, such as drunken driving shifts, will also be reduced. Internal reports and administrative tasks will be delayed with smaller staff rosters. Emergency calls are expected to take about four minutes between 911 calls and the arrivals of an officer, about the average now.

“A lot of these impacts are not going to be known how impactful they will be until we get moving forward and we don’t have some of these people in these positions,” Ramsdell said. “We know we are going to be smaller. We know we are going to be challenged, but it’s important that instead of thinking about doing more with less, we think about doing things differently.” Some of that change will come in jail services, since jail costs through a contract with Pierce County to house inmates from Tacoma have jumped more than 70 percent in the last five years. Jailing Tacoma criminals cost Tacoma $7.7 million in 2007 and now costs $13.3 million. “That is concerning to us, obviously,” Ramsdell said. “And we are looking for ways to mitigate that.” Alternative sentencing of community service or home monitoring instead of jail could translate into substantial savings for the police budget. Councilmember Jake Fey further proposed the notion of finding a way to proportionalize the jail services with other cities when a Tacoma officer arrests someone for a crime within Tacoma who is also wanted for crimes in other cities as a way to control costs. The cuts come at a time when crime has largely been on the decline and expected to remain flat through 2015, at about 135,000 total calls for service a year. But the story behind those numbers tells a bit of a different story. Crimes against people, such as assaults, robberies and rapes, are down, from a year-to-date high of 4,670 in 2007 to 3,036 in 2012. Crimes against property, such as car theft, burglary and vandalism, are heading up after hitting a low in 2011 with 12,517 cases to 13,692 so far this year. The recent high was in 2007 with 17,559 incidents. Crimes against society, such as prostitution and street drug dealing, are down from the 2007 of 1,659 to 862 this year, but that drop comes more from officers responding to more emergency calls that take them away from pro-active investigations, he said. “We are basically operating on a skeleton crew,” Ramsdell said.