Friday, July 6, 2007

Thursday night fights

A few days ago, I got a little wound up in this blog about the way babysitting the binge-drinking bar break crowd downtown requires too many of our limited resources. My frustration was related to a shooting last weekend that erupted outside Sur Tango. Sometimes it seems that the lid is barely being held on the downtown high-risk drinking bar scene, and the shooting was perhaps an indication of the bad things that can happen when and if it blows.

Last night (well, technically this morning), eight officers or so were needed to deal with the bar break crowd at Opulence Ultra Club, the most recent in a line of 6 or 8 nightclubs that have come and gone in the lower level of the Gold's building at 11th and O Street. Anyone remember Lucky Lady, Decadance, Kabooms, Celebrations, Alexandria, and a few I'm forgetting? Perfect timing, as I had just received an email on Wednesday from a city councilman who forwarded a rather animated message he had received from a downtown resident complaining about the goings-on outside Opulence at closing time, and his perception of the too-laid-back approach of the police to dealing with the crowd. He's probably right--we try hard not to be the triggering event for a riot, while still getting the job done.

Last night's festivities outside Opulence started when the Head of Security decided that the best way to get the crowd to leave the area was to deploy his stash of pepper spray. Rather than calming things down and encouraging the lingerers to disperse, the crowd became enraged and someone punched out the Head of Security. The caused a second employee to release more pepper spray, which did not calm the crowd either (funny how that works).

The Head of Security is not a person known for his calm and rationale dealings, nor his skill at defusing conflict. He has been booked into the Lancaster County Jail on 30 occasions since 1995, and his convictions include two for assault, one for violating a protection order, one for contributing to the delinquency of a child, one for attempted escape, two for refusing to comply with and order of a police officer, and two for resisting arrest. Many of these originated at various nightclubs.

Dealing with increasingly hostile confrontations as nightclubs close is a national issue for the police, and one which gets lots of discussion when chiefs gather. I see that it is a highlighted topic on the upcoming 18th Annual Problem Oriented Policing Conference agenda, appropriately, in Madison, WI.


Mr. Wilson said...

I tried to come up with an idea or a question, but I drew a blank. I "get" a lot of cultures, but I have never been able to "get" the bar culture. It just doesn't compute for me. So I've got nothing.

Instead, I'll just say: I wish James Dalton were here.

foxspit said...

As more retail leaves downtown and more restaurants and bars move in, the problem will only worsen.

I have no answer with how to deal with this but it's a shame that one small portion of Lincoln burdens our police department's resources with such great frequency.

Anonymous said...

what kind of bar is this Opulence. Why would any respectable business owner/operator hire a yahoo like this to handle security. I'm all for second chances but why not as a dishwasher. Someone responsible for security needs training and common sense...I thought. And a record like that screams of bad decision making and a hot temper. Both qualities I would think would disqualify anyone for a position as security. Oh hum...

Ed S. 359 said...

Mr. Wilson tried to come up with a question or a comment, but drew a blank. I have lots of questions and comments. Today I will go with comments.

You said eight officers were required to deal with the problem at Opulence. That is two or three more officers more (on the average) than any one of our five teams is able to put on the street on any one late shift, 11:00 PM to 6:00AM, year round. This one incident put all the officers from one team out of service as well as one half of the officers from another team. Suddenly about 25% of the officers available to take calls are out on one single disturbance.

Then, suppose there is a serious rollover accident with persons ejected. Another 25% of our officers are out of service at that accident. Yet another traffic accident ten miles away involves a death and takes away another 25 % of our available officers. Now we suddenly have about eight officers to cover what ever happens any where else in the city. This is an extremely dangerous situation, not only for the people we serve, but also for our police officers.

Nearly all the incidents officers respond to at this time of day require at least the presence of two officers. This is not just for officer safety it also helps ensure the safety of those who have asked for our aid as well as those who are responsible for the crime/disturbance. Yet some of these officers will be ten to fifteen miles away, across town, from the backup and assistance of another officer. (Ten miles separate the SE corner of the SE Team from the NW corner of the SE Team. It is not unreasonable that a SE officer be sent to Center Team or NW Team to handle an exigent call in the middle of the night/morning. He or she might be asked to travel seventeen miles across town to a call that needs immediate attention.)

Our department is too small. Something has to give. We can not keep delivering our citizens the level of service they deserve at our current staffing levels. In addition I fear our current staffing levels, low as they are, are going to continue to fall.

Our 6:00AM and 11:00PM shifts average putting six officers per team on the street for general calls for service or about 30 officers, this for a city of 242,000 souls. Our middle shift, which starts about 3:00 PM puts about 35 officers per day on the street, they handle about 40 % of our daily calls. No other police department I know of can, or even tries, to deliver the level of service we do with so few officers.

We are currently operating at the breaking point. Officers are going to leave us for departments where the strain and pressure is less. We are going to be forced to deliver less service. Overtime will increase. (Less folks attempting to do the same amount of work.)

Lincoln currently has about 242,000 people within in boundaries. The authorized strength of the Lincoln Police Department is 315. Using these numbers, yes, Chief I know you will correct me, I put our ratio of officer per 1000 population at about 1.31.

Three or four years ago we were at about 1.35 officers per 1000 population. Even at that number we were far behind any city we compare to.

But here is the unvarnished truth. Today we have only 299 officers on the pay role. Two additional officers will retire next week and one more will resign. That leaves us at 296 officers or a ratio of 1.22 officers per 1000 population. Our elected officials will allow us to hire 16 more officers this year, sometime. Even if all 16 make it and no one else retires and our population does not increase at all, in one year from now we will be at 1.29 officers per 1000 citizens. Still going backwards!

We can not keep up. Service will suffer.

All the big cities across America that suffer from excessive crime rates have officer to citizen ratios that come close to doubling or more than double ours. Even at those staffing levels they can not deliver the level of service we do.

They do not, and claim they can not, pay attention to the “little things.” Well, we do pay attention to the little things. Because of this Lincoln remains a safe, family friendly city. We need to make sure this level of service continues.

Our elected city leaders need to do that, lead!

Tom Casady said...

Well, you've made good use of the data! Thanks for giving my speech, pretty much the same thing I've told every Citizen Academy class, City Council budget hearing, and Rotary Club for the past 13 years. It's good to have a consistent and rational message coming from more than one source.

A couple of things. What's that comment "Yes, Chief, I know you will correct me."? Am I really that anal when it comes to data? ;-)Okay, just to fulfill your expectation, our authorized strength is 317, not 315 (even though one of those is the unfunded vacant assistant chief.) Oh, and our high-water mark was 1999-2000, when we hit 1.39 officers per 1,000. Oh, that class of 16 that starts on August 9 won't be the only one in the coming fiscal year. My projections show we'll be hiring around 12 in January, and 11 in August.

Finally, there really are a handful (literally) of police departments in cities of note that are even smaller. I am pals with the chiefs in two: Craig Steckler in Fremont, CA; and Dennis Harrison in Fort Collins, CO. They have the same struggles we do, and the same concerns.

Craig, Dennis, and I have to work with the resources our community provides. So do all of our employees. All of these departments have excellent reputations and do a darn good job of serving the citizens in their communities. Here's the deal: there's no magic size to a police department. It simply has to be large enough to deliver the services the public expects. As I have always, always, always told our elected officials and general public, I don't think we are large enough to deliver the services you expect, and to do so, we should be at 1.5 officers per thousand. That would still be very small and represent good value, it would be achievable without breaking the taxpayers back, and the bottom dollar is that with today's population, it would put 46 more police officers in our authorized strength. That's about 9 more officers on duty at any given time, on average.

We made good progress towards that goal during the decade of the 1990's, moving from 1.23 in 1990 to 1.39 by the end of the decade. Since 9/11, we have had an economic downturn in Lincoln, and we have slipped backwards to 1.31. As economic conditions improve, I hope we can continue to make progress towards 1.5. It is still as valid as a target today as it was in 1994.

That's my goal, always has been, and will continue to be. Those charts, graphs, reports, and PowerPoints I have created and maintained are not for me--they are for the groups I speak to, the City Councils, the Mayors, and other community leaders.

This blog is in part intended to be another information source where more people can get a glimpse into the reality of the issues we deal with and the problems we face, and maybe decide for themselves whether they are well-served by their police force, and whether they can support this goal.

Bring on the performance audit!

Anonymous said...

Time to chime in with a comment to Ed S. 359 and the Chief.

Amen to that.

And for what it's worth, especially to the men and women of blue: Thank-you for your efforts, under obviously less than ideal, let alone adequate conditions, at continuing to maintain the high level of service we have come to expect and take for granted.

cop star said...

But then, Chief, why can't we start cutting services to compensate for our understaffing? This is a common question among your officers? For example, why can't abandoned bikes be turned over to someone else to deal with? Perhaps gas drive off's (which should be civil if the store won't demand prepayment) be taken over the phone to save time, energy and resources. Why can't we start saying no to a person's every beckoned call for silly reasons when we simply don't have the resources to answer them. When is something going to give? We've allowed the citizens to become too dependant on us and until we start telling them no, it will continue to get worse. Departments of this size do not still operate the way we are. Why, when we are so short staffed we are sending officers on 17 mile road trips, should their safety be jepordized because another officer is on a gas drive off with no suspect information 20 miles away? Yes, we are still keeping the citizens safe but are our police officers still safe? Most would tell you no at this point. I realize you acknowledge the problem and point it out to the many groups you speak to throughout the year but we only keep hearing the problems and no solutions. We're all frustrated to a point of breaking.

Tom Casady said...

cop star:

Standby. I agree, it's one of those times that service cuts are needed. We've done this on two prior occasions that I recall (keys locked in vehicles, barking dogs, every medical emergency, and private property accidents come immediately to mind.) I already have meetings scheduled with two business groups, and a few other ideas I've been discussing with the management staff.

By the way, a few months ago, I had a sample of departments polled on the gas drive offs--they were all handling them pretty much the same way. Ideas are welcomed, so long as they don't effect our core mission of providing the services that promote a safe and secure community.

What makes you think departments of this size do not operate pretty much the same way we do? I just came back from a meeting of 17 of the 20 cites in the benchmark city chiefs group we founded 10 years ago, and I have no reason to believe we're out on any kind of lunatic fringe. What's your source? I'll be happy to have my staff follow-up with a contact at that department. Let's stick to facts, and not start or perpetuate myths.

Who else you have in mind for abandoned bikes? That would be a good one to offload, but someone's got to do it, and we do have a slight interest in recovering any that are stolen--even those that haven't been reported yet.

Anonymous said...

Abandoned bikes = Put it in as the city tow truck bid to pick these up and document

dk said...

We don't tell citizens no because that is not who we are. Our history is one of service, and I hope our future will also reflect this. Remember, in times when we needed them, and they were informed of our need, the citizens have been there to help. Perhaps a police bond issue? Even if it fails, which I don't think it would, the education and discussion would be invaluable. dk

Jenn said...

I agree, Abandoned bike calls should be dealt with by someone else. Like Anonymous July 7 said, city tow truck. I am sure there are a lot of frivolous calls the police have to handle. Cutting back on these would save the dept a lot of gas $ and time for the busy officers. I would love to be able to know what kind of calls come in everyday, and how much time is spent on them. Is there any data for that Chief?