I have family in Pennsylvania, so I spend a lot of holidays making the half-day trip to Philadelphia. And typically around the holidays, I see more police officers and state troopers on the road than normal.
But a few years back, I noticed something else. Some departments park empty patrol cars along highly visible sections of highway, making drivers check their speedometers or tap their brakes.
The empty car strategy happens a lot more frequently than you think, including here in Mecklenburg. In fact, police have done versions of the ruse for years.
I was reminded of the strategy when Charlotte-Mecklenburg police began considering hiring more officers. As city leaders evaluate the costs, they’re asking whether the department is doing enough to reduce crime with the resources they have.
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Last week, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney told City Council members he wants to hire as many as 125 new officers and 80 civilian employees.
The request could cost up to $16.7 million next fiscal year and could result in a tax increase or significant cuts to other services. The Observer’s Steve Harrison estimated that paying for those employees would take a 4 percent property tax hike – $50 more a year for a home valued at $250,000.
But authorities are already doing a lot to convince people that there are more officers out there.
Sheriff Irwin Carmichael told me he’s told his deputies to complete the bulk of their paper work in the parking lots of schools and churches.
“We’ve been stationing officers at churches since the shootings in Charleston,” Carmichael said. He said he tells officers to park by elementary schools, because “those schools don’t have resource officers” assigned to them.
Some other ways police have used signage and insignia to make you think there are more officers on the streets:
▪ Giving officers take-home cars. In 2009, then-CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe changed department policy to allow more officers who live in Mecklenburg to take their patrol cars home. He said the increased visibility would deter criminals in neighborhoods across the county.
▪ Putting traffic officers in marked cars. Years ago, officers who searched for speeders and drunk drivers used unmarked cars to better catch lawbreakers in the act. Now, the department has put those officers in marked patrol cars, which officers say makes most drivers obey traffic laws.
▪ Allowing officers to have secondary employment jobs. The department lets private employers hire CMPD officers for law enforcement-related services. The minimum salary is $29 an hour, and the net result is a larger number of police officers on city streets. Officers wear their police uniforms, including their badge and their gun. And, unsurprisingly, officers are allowed to bring a patrol car to some assignments.