CMPD Chief Kerr Putney to ask for more officers, could mean tax increase

Chief Kerr Putney told City Council on Monday that he wants to add officers to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to keep pace with population growth and to lower violent crime, which has spiked 17.5 percent over the last year.

It would be the first increase in the department’s size since 2008, when the city used federal stimulus money to add 125 officers, bringing the total to about 1,850.

Since then, Putney said, the number of 911 calls the department has received increased from 766,000 in 2008 to 1.25 million so far this year, and the city’s population has grown by 8 percent.

People who commute to Charlotte for work or come to town for special events also swell population numbers, Putney said.

“We have not added police as we have added people,” Putney said.

Putney also said the city must study how much it pays its officers to be competitive with other cities and other professions. He said the nationwide dialogue over police misconduct has made it harder to hire officers, and the city may need to improve its compensation package to get good people – and to prevent them from leaving after just a few years on the job.

“People are less likely to jump into a profession where they see themselves as being unsupported and, in some cases, vilified,” Putney told reporters after his remarks to City Council.

Putney did not give a firm number of how many officers he would request but told council members he would have more definitive answers by the end of the year. If he asks for another 125 officers, that would cost the city at least $7 million a year, once benefits are included.

That could result in a property tax increase, which would be the third hike in five years.

Council members Monday appeared to support the idea of hiring more police, asking Putney about whether the police force needed to be expanded before he broached the subject during Monday’s presentation.

“We really basically have not added police as we have added people,” asked Claire Fallon, who heads the community safety committee, which oversees the police and fire departments.

What may be a harder sell politically is a change in the pay plan for public safety employees.

Council members four years ago changed the pay plan for police and firefighters, whose compensation had become “unsustainable” because the step increases it offered were too frequent and too large. Giving pay raises after hiring more officers in 2016 would further strain the city budget.

Starting officers make about $42,000.

Putney said he wanted to study whether to increase the department’s civilian staff to reduce the amount of paperwork officers have to deal with. He also said CMPD’s crime investigations unit hasn’t grown in 20 years.

Putney said he believed the backlash over allegations of police misconduct in places such as Ferguson, Mo., had also affected how police do their job.

He also appeared to reference the controversy over the trial of former CMPD officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, who was tried for shooting an unarmed black man in 2013. Kerrick’s trial this year ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

“We are hurting as an organization,” he said.

Putney and council members reinforced that adding officers wasn’t a panacea for crime. City manager Ron Carlee said the council was trying to strengthen neighborhood associations and community services in areas that have seen jumps in crime this year.

One of those places was the Springfield neighborhood, where 7-year-old Kevin Rodas was shot and killed during a birthday party over the Labor Day weekend.

Still, putting more officers on the street has worked in the past. After the department last added officers – and reshuffled the department to put more officers on patrol – the city saw crime drop consistently for nearly six years.

Last year, for example, Charlotte had 42 killings, the city’s lowest homicide total since the department began keeping uniform records in the 1970s.

In 2015, both violent and property crime are up by double digits when compared to last year. And Charlotte had more homicides by September than it had in all of last year.

Home invasion robberies in Charlotte have increased 50 percent since 2014. Homicides are up 47 percent.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson