published Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Vacancies outnumber new jobs in Chattanooga Police Department budget

In the past, the Chattanooga Police Department has had as many as 120 detectives to investigate crimes ranging from theft to homicide, but now it has just a few more than 80 on the rolls.

Under former Mayor Ron Littlefield, nearly three years went by without the department holding a police academy for cadets. The priority shifted to patrol, the backbone of the department: Officers must answer calls for service, police Chief Bobby Dodd said.

"When you're pulling folks to deal with street-level crime or deal with calls for service, you're going to have to pull from investigations," Dodd said.

Mayor Andy Berke's proposed budget would add 40 officers, allowing for 20 more detectives to work cases. But that won't even fill the existing vacancies in the ranks, much less beef them up, department figures show.

As city officials were planning the 2014 budget, the department staffing was at 446 cops. In the last week, five have retired and five quit. In all, the city's human resources department counts 59 police officer vacancies.

When asked why the positions were unfilled, the following response was given in an email, “Our system can’t determine how long they have been vacant. Could range from years to a few days. Reason for vacancies throughout city government vary.”

Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Berke, said, "That vacancy number fluctuates, contains old positions, etc., and it doesn't provide an accurate look at what's happening in the department -- it's just what is in our Oracle system."

Berke's proposed budget will authorize funding for 40 more officer positions.

"What's important is that the mayor has authorized and funded enough positions to bring Chattanooga [police] to an all-time high -- 486," Stone said.

As of this week, the department employed 436 sworn police officers, including 19 recent graduates from the police academy who are still with field training officers. That's the same number as the late 1990s, personnel records show.

There are 30 officers who became eligible for retirement this month. With tensions mounting over potential changes to the police and fire pension fund, it's unclear if they will leave.

"They are scared. I've got multiple phone calls. ... 'What are my numbers and when can I leave? If I was to walk away today, what can I take?'" said Terry Knowles, pension board member.

Berke said he has received some calls from officers and firefighters who would potentially be affected by any pension reform.

"I want the best method to resolve a situation that is, certainly, incredibly difficult," Berke said. "I value their service to our city. I appreciate what firefighters and police officers do. ...

"Everyone needs to understand I'm trying to protect a pension fund," Berke said. "If you're $150 million underfunded, we have to figure out a way through this. Ignoring the problem is not an option."

Asked whether eligible officers could leave, Dodd said, "We just hope and pray that doesn't happen. Assuming everything stays the same, getting to 486 [officers] will be the highest number of sworn officers we've ever had in the police department."

It could take nearly a year to recruit and train new officers.

With the recent departures, Dodd hopes to hire 20 experienced officers who already are certified to work as police officers in Tennessee. They could be ready to work in eight weeks after going through a shortened academy and field training program.

He plans to have a separate class of 30 cadets go through the normal 36-week training program.

Aside from adding 20 detectives, Dodd hopes to add another 10 positions to the crime suppression unit and 10 more to patrol in areas where there has been growth.

Gene O'Donnell, professor of law and police studies at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, said it's how resources are used that really makes the difference. More police doesn't necessarily translate to lower crime rates across the board. However, it's generally accepted that more resources result in lowering violent crime, he said.

"It's not really the number of people they have. It's what they're doing and how they're doing it. That's really important," he said.

Aside from more officers, there are plans for the city to fund a federal prosecutor position to charge the most violent offenders using drug and gun laws to net them longer sentences. Berke also plans to roll out several programs targeting violent gang and drug dealers in the community beginning in 2014.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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