Crime & Courts

CMPD, already bigger than peer cities, wants to add officers for community policing

Public safety experts and city leaders say that the reason police would want more officers is to help forge relationships with the community and to go after the root causes of crime.
Public safety experts and city leaders say that the reason police would want more officers is to help forge relationships with the community and to go after the root causes of crime. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say they need to hire more officers to keep pace with a growing city and increasing demands.

But an Observer analysis shows CMPD has more officers per capita than all but one of the cities to which it compares itself. In addition to that peer city analysis, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics shows CMPD’s 2.27 officers per 1,000 people puts it right at the average for U.S. cities of similar size.

Chief Kerr Putney did not dispute those findings in an interview with the Observer. He said CMPD needs to do more community-based policing that tries to address root causes of crime. He declined to say how many more officers that will take. The plan is still “under construction,” he said, and he plans to discuss more details at January’s City Council retreat.

In 2008, adding 125 officers cost $7 million and resulted in a tax increase. City leaders acknowledged that hiring more officers now could result in the third tax hike in five years.

Shown the Observer analysis, Mayor Jennifer Roberts said the comparison with other cities is a part of “the total picture” the City Council will look at when evaluating whether to add more officers.

“I think we need to look at the total resources,” she said. “There are support people, dispatchers, there are other folks involved in putting officers on the street. It’s looking at the total picture. I’m not sure what that picture is. We have not seen that from the chief.”

The request to add officers comes as CMPD is contending with an increase in crime in almost all categories, including a six-year high for homicides.

Putney has said that police-community partnerships will be a hallmark of his tenure, and that CMPD’s 1,840 officers will be judged on how well they connect with the community to solve and prevent crime.

But that brand of community policing takes more officers and costs more, according to Putney, other public safety experts and city leaders.

“If I allocate four hours to two officers to do some proactive work to try to prevent future crime, then I have two officers that I’m short on the line,” Putney told the Observer. “So we have to get to where we’re staffed to accommodate more of that because that’s truly our mission. That actually keeps us from having that escalation of violence and those issues crimewise.”

Former CMPD Chief Darrel Stephens, who now leads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said Putney will have to determine how many officers are needed for the new effort while continuing to handle the current workload of 911 calls and arrests.

“You have to look at the amount of time we want to devote to community policing and problem-solving activity,” said Stephens, who headed CMPD from 1999 to 2008. “If all you ever do is respond to calls, you never get a chance to fix the reason people are calling you.”

Kami Chavis Simmons, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University, said departments may need more officers to build stronger community relationships amid national concerns about police use of force.

“Culturally, police organizations are going to have to change,” Simmons said. “They have to have a guardian mentality rather than a warrior mentality. A lot of these vulnerable communities need the partnership of the police – it’s just redefining public safety.”

When he was CMPD chief, Stephens was one of the nation’s biggest proponents of community policing, but he faced criticism as crime increased. Rodney Monroe, who succeeded Stephens in 2008 and retired last summer, dismantled some community liaison units and instead dedicated more officers to beefing up patrols and targeting the city’s worst criminals.

Putney was a deputy chief in CMPD under both Stephens and Monroe, and became chief in June. He has previously told the Observer he will place a stronger emphasis on community policing.

Workload and pay

In November, Putney told council members that CMPD needs more officers because “we have not added police as we have added people,” but he did not talk directly about community policing.

“We need to look at public safety as infrastructure,” he told council members on Nov. 9. “We need to think about how we invest our money, because that determines how safe we make our city. Obviously, with growth comes increased workloads. We’re in excess of 1.2 million 911 calls a year. Our population has increased by 8.2 percent (since 2008). We project that by the year 2020, we’re going to have nearly a million people.”

The proposal for more officers comes as crime has jumped for the first time in years. Crime in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is up 10.6 percent through the third quarter when compared with the same period last year, with increases in every crime category. Violent crime is up 17.6 percent for the same period. CMPD investigated 62 homicides in 2015, a 50 percent increase from 2014.

Each of CMPD’s 13 divisions has between 80 and 100 officers. An increase on par with the one in 2008 would provide about nine more officers in each division.

In addition to hiring more officers, Putney said the city must make sure CMPD pay is competitive with that in other cities and other professions. CMPD officers start at an annual salary of about $42,000. That’s below the $47,466 average starting salary for cities with more than 250,000 people, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Putney 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.

Compared with peer cities

During his presentation to the City Council, Putney identified six benchmark cities – municipalities similar to Charlotte in size, population, urban-rural mix and other factors. The cities, which CMPD routinely uses for comparisons, are Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Austin, Texas.

Putney said Charlotte has a lower crime rate than all but one of those cities, San Jose.

Afterward, the Observer contacted those six benchmark cities. Five have fewer officers per person than Charlotte. Only Columbus, Ohio, has more officers per capita (2.34 per 1,000 people) than CMPD. Another benchmark city, San Francisco, is bigger in population than Charlotte and has 1.89 officers per 1,000 people.

One of the benchmark cities, Indianapolis, is considering adding 150 officers, a police department spokesman said.

Within North Carolina, Charlotte’s 2.27 officers per 1,000 people is more than Raleigh but fewer than Greensboro.

While Putney points out that CMPD has not added officers since 2008, Stephens noted that Charlotte was spared the kind of deep cuts felt by many other police departments during the recession that began about the same time. Some of those departments now are trying to rebound, Stephens said.

“There are a few places that are adding police officers – a good many of them,” Stephens said. “For the most part, (cities are) trying to catch up to where they were at in 2008 and get back to those levels.”

Weighing the needs

During Putney’s presentation in November, most City Council members voiced general support for expanding Charlotte’s police force, and Putney told the Observer on Thursday that he has talked to some city leaders as he builds his plan.

Still, the mayor and the council’s community safety committee chair said approval of Putney’s request will depend on how the department plans to deploy officers – and whether police can show that adding officers will help address the root causes of crime.

“I think that most of the council will agree we need more officers,” said Mayor Roberts. “But that’s not the only part of the solution. It’s not just officers; it’s the way they approach the problems we face in the community. It’s about reaching our youth and jail diversion programs. ... We also want to strengthen our community policing and strengthen our relationship between police officers and the community.”

Julie Eiselt, community safety committee chair, said that she has favored more officers for nearly a decade but that she will remain open-minded until she sees how Putney’s plan for more officers compares with other uses for city money.

One issue, she said, is that too many officers leave for better-paying jobs with the federal government or the private sector after the city has paid tens of thousands of dollars to hire and train them.

“That’s not uncommon for federal agencies or other police agencies to try to recruit already trained officers from a really good department,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the police executive research forum. “That doesn’t surprise me, and it means an argument could be made to improve the working conditions and benefits of existing officers.”

Eiselt said that one question is whether money should instead be used to improve salaries and benefits to make being a CMPD officer more competitive with other professions or law enforcement jobs.

“This is the banker in me, but it’s ‘How are you going to get the most for your investment?’” she said. “It bothers me when the first answer is ‘Let’s go hire more officers’ when we know they tap out quickly, from a benefits and salary standpoint.”

She said the city also needs to explore whether the money can be used for other services that would have a long-term impact on crime.

“There is just a lack of services in our city and a lack of coordination between the private sector and government agencies – the services that you need to prevent recidivism, to help people once they get out,” she said.

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

Peer cities

(number of officers per 1,000 people)

Columbus, Ohio 2.34

Charlotte-Mecklenburg 2.27

Austin, Texas 2.02

Indianapolis 1.94

Jacksonville, Fla. 1.89

San Francisco 1.89

San Jose, Calif. 0.89

North Carolina cities

Greensboro 2.42

Raleigh 1.82

Factors behind CMPD staffing

Former CMPD Chief Darrel Stephens, who now heads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said three factors likely will weigh heavily in CMPD’s staffing request:

▪ High-poverty areas: Police are busiest in Charlotte’s urban core neighborhoods, which are densely populated and have more people in poverty. For example, two divisions just north of uptown – the Metro Division and the North Tryon Division – had the highest homicide totals in 2015.

▪ Calls for service: CMPD responded to 1.25 million 911 calls in 2015, a 63 percent increase from 2008, the last time the department received an increase in officers.

▪ Workload efficiency: CMPD will look at the time officers need for each part of the job, from attending roll call to filling out reports to finding a place to use the restroom while on patrol.

CMPD snapshot

▪ Largest police agency between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

▪ 1,840 sworn officers.

▪ 438 square miles of coverage, including the city of Charlotte, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and unincorporated parts of Mecklenburg County.

▪ Responsible for 828,870 residents, plus commuters and tourists who increase the daytime population to 994,223.

Previous CMPD expansion

In 1993, the urban Charlotte Police Department combined with the rural Mecklenburg Police Department. The combined force had 1,102 officers.

Now, CMPD has 1,840 sworn officers. The number of officers assigned to patrol Charlotte streets hasn’t increased significantly since 2008.

Since 2005, the number of sworn officers under CMPD’s umbrella has increased by about 300 officers, but the department says most of those officers don’t patrol city streets. Some have special assignments, like securing the airport or policing the city’s buses and trains.

Among the 300 additional officers in the past decade:

▪ Fifty-seven were part of the airport police when that department was merged with CMPD, according to police records. CMPD took control of security at the airport in 2012.

▪ In 2008, the City Council increased the size of the department by 125 officers.

▪ CMPD also has added supervisors: sergeants, lieutenants and a deputy chief position.

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