Port Angeles Police Department commands a budget over $5 million. Add on the 911 PenCom system and it goes up almost another million dollars.
Recently a rash of burglaries generated news stories, with downtown merchants complaining of a lack of police protection. That culminated in merchants themselves using video surveillance images to identify a suspect then track him down to his residence where police were called to make the arrest.
Able or unable?
Last December Port Angeles Police Chief Terry Gallagher told the public his police force was unable to enforce basic traffic laws or conduct patrols to be on the lookout for scofflaws because of staffing issues. His normal staff of 32 was down by 2. He said “Essentially, the police department here has our finger in the dike” in a story that told how understaffed is the Port Angeles Police Department.
Different audience, different story?
Yet it was only three weeks earlier when Chief Gallagher told the public statistics showed crime in Port Angeles is down, as is the number of homeless. Allegedly, crime in Port Angeles is down 5.7% in the year between 2012 and 2013. Gallagher said the department was getting 3,400 calls a year from the downtown area ten years ago, prior to hiring a downtown resource officer. Now it is around 1,600 calls. Port Angeles Police Records Supervisor Ed Schilke stated, “I have inquired of officers about an increase in property crimes and any communication related to that increase. So far I have received no copies of and have only heard that property crime numbers are not elevated.”
The fact that crime in Port Angeles continues to decline was confirmed by Chief Gallagher, saying reported burglaries in 2014 numbered 186 for the year, down from the 204 burglaries reported the previous year. Further the Chief reports the declining trend continues so far in 2015.
It seems the public is being told two inconsistant stories at the same time. One is crime is being reduced by established staffing, and the other is crime is unmanageable due to inadequate staffing.
How does Port Angeles stack up, when compared to other cities in Washington?
According to statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Report, for cities with populations over 5,000, Port Angeles does not even make the list among the 15 most dangerous cities in Washington. Interestingly, Sequim makes the list at number 14.
The FBI tracks a wide variety of statistics, among them are “full time” staffing numbers for each city across America. Staffing of a police department is divided into two categories: trained sworn officers and “civilians” who don’t go out on patrols. Civilians in a police department can be employed as Community Outreach, Public Information Officers, Parking Enforcement, Records Management, 911 dispatch and more. In Port Angeles the police department runs the peninsula-wide 911 dispatch system too.
Sworn versus civilian staff
Port Angeles, with a population of around 19,000, has 57 full time staff. Thirty-two are sworn officers, and 25 are “civilians.” In comparing Port Angeles to other Washington cities with a similar population, it has a very similar ratio of police to the population it serves. Virtually all the cities with around 19,000 people have approximently 32 police on staff. If anything, Port Angeles has a higher number of officers than the average for cities of similar size.
When it comes to full time civilian employees in its police department, Port Angeles has, at 25, far more than most. Some of these are assigned to the 911 PenCom system. Mukilteo, with a population over 20,000, has only 4 full time civilian employees. Mercer Island with 23,000 people also employs only 4 full time civilians. Vancouver (Wa) has a population of 166,000 and employs 22 full time civilians in its’ police department, fewer than Port Angeles.
These are not slight nor subtle differences. When considering these are all full time positions with full benefits, the dollar figures involved are significant. These figures also demand questions such as: how do all these other cities function with so few full time civilian employees in their police departments? What are the budget implications? Can Port Angeles city administration learn how to be more efficient from them? Are PenCom agencies paying a fair share? Why isn’t Olympic Ambulance paying for PenCom services? They garner up to $600,000 per year after being dispatched via PenCom. Are Port Angeles taxpayers footing more of the bill than is fair? Should the city divest itself of its PenCom responsibilities?
Surrounding law enforcement agencies swarm when needed
Additionally, and seemingly not brought into these considerations are the numerous other law enforcement agencies that “swarm” to virtually any reported 911 call. Residents in Port Angeles are well accustomed to seeing officers from the Sheriff’s Department, the Elwha Police, the Border Patrol, the State Police, undercover police and detectives all showing up to assist Port Angeles police. How many other communities enjoy the services of so many sworn officers?
In a December 2014 interview, Port Angeles Police Chief Gallagher said:” “I believe as long as we continue to staff the Police Department with 32 officers, our ability to do more than just reactive police work is very difficult.” Yet virtually every other police force in cities of similar size across Washington seem to be managing things fine. Even in Port Angeles, just a few months ago, the same Chief was telling the public crime was down, and all was well. Is it wise to have police cars sit idle in an officers’ driveway 16 hours a day? If we purchase one third less police cars couldn’t that money be put to hiring more officers? Does a department this size need an assistant chief? Are we top-heavy with supervisors?
It would seem the news should be how well served Port Angeles is by all these various law enforcement agencies and professionals. The news should be how crime rates have been steadily declining. Depicting Port Angeles as “unsafe” does not help revitalization efforts, or attract new businesses. Gallaher is caught in a Catch-22. If all is well the budget goes down. If all is not well the budget goes up.
Last December, Port Angeles City Manager Dan McKeen stated: “Each department needs to go through what are the important things they need to accomplish with the resources we have.” The city council priority-setting process should be completed by mid-2015.
After 150 years since inception the city council is finally setting priorities.