Friday, February 20, 2009

Tough Times, Tough Calls

There’s no escaping the bad news about the economy. And with tight economies, come tight budgets. At this week’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting, I presented a proposal for the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget. (The fiscal year runs from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010.) The total dollar amount: $168 million. With a proposed budget allocation of $150 million from the city of St. Louis, that’s a difference of $18 million. That’s quite a gap to close! There are certainly some items in the budget that the command staff will review and decide are not absolute necessities. There are others that we will decide we can’t go one more year without including in the budget.

In the past, when the Department’s had to make cuts to the budget, money for police cars was among the first items to go. That’s left us with almost no choice today. We’re nearing a point where one-third of our police cars have more than 100,000 miles. By the end of 2009, nearly one-half of our police cars will have more than 100,000 miles. Older cars mean more frequent repair bills, but that’s the smaller worry. In the worst case scenario, we could face a situation where police response in an emergency situation could be impacted or officer safety could be compromised. We have to replace these cars now.

The Department is in the midst of switching to an interoperable radio system that will allow police, firefighters, EMS and multiple others in the city and the region to communicate in an emergency. You may remember that the inability to communicate was deemed a major hindrance to rescue efforts on 9/11 in New York City. Though bond issues and grants are paying for many of the costs associated with this new system, the Department will need additional money for support components. This system is too important to risk it not functioning properly in a disaster situation.

The Department handles incoming 911 calls for police, fires, and EMS. We need more employees to handle those calls. Though no callers received a busy signal in all of 2008, and 87% of 911 calls are answered within 3 rings, if you’re the person making the call to 911 in an emergency, even three rings can seem like a very long time. These are high-stress positions with a degree of responsibility that few people can imagine. I’m proud of the job our employees do, and we owe it to them and the citizens of St. Louis to have adequate staffing levels.

The Department’s property custody division is in the midst of a top to bottom overhaul. Property custody is the area where seized property, recovered property and found property is stored. Currently, those items are stored in the former prisoner processing and handling area. In other words--the old jail. And to say the area is packed is an understatement. Items are stored just about every place you can imagine. It’s another area that was let go for too many years. A recent audit by an evidence expert yielded this remark: the storage methods we currently have are among “the most inefficient possible.” We’ve made great progress in the past few months with changes to security and handling. However, other major police departments that have had major scandals related to property, have often had to build an entirely new facility to store that property. We have certainly had some problems, but have not faced a crisis as many other Departments have. We don’t want to reach a point where the prosecution of a criminal is harmed due to problems with evidence. A new facility is not a luxury—it’s a necessity.

The question of course, is how many of these items are necessities now. Those four areas alone equal more than $9 million.

In a year where the City of St. Louis has been forced to ask many departments to cut their budgets, our $150 million allocation is actually an increase. I’m grateful for that and grateful that the city is obviously committed to the safety of its citizens and visitors.

You deserve the best possible police service. The men and women I work alongside at the Metropolitan Police Department are committed to doing everything we can to deliver. But there’s no mistaking---the tough times, make for tough calls. I’ll keep you posted as we move through the process.