Chief makes case for more officers

Call 911 today because a man with a gun is breaking into your house and it could take a Columbus police officer 10 minutes to get there.

"That’s not acceptable,” Police Chief Ricky Boren said of that emergency response time while outlining his department’s budget needs for city leaders on the second day of Columbus Council’s two-day planning retreat at the Columbus Iron Works Convention and Trade Center.

Boren said the average response time for what’s called a “Priority 3” call is now at 9.61 minutes. For a call that’s not an emergency, like when a resident just needs a police report for an insurance claim, an officer might not arrive for two or three hours.

The problem is staffing, said Boren, whose list of needs to prepare his department for the city’s anticipated growth topped $21 million, about a quarter of that just to bump salaries up to a level that would keep Columbus competitive in the job market.

"The Columbus Police Department does a good job on hiring,” Boren said. “We just can’t keep them.”

It loses officers so fast that in the past five years, it has hired 197 and lost 190, coming out only seven ahead. Right now the force is six officers short of a full complement of 388, and three more are about to leave, he said, so by next week, the department will be nine down.

And it needs many, many more, said Boren, who would like to hire 100 new officers and increase the percentage of first-responders in his department from 59 to 65, adding 10 new beats requiring five officers each, primarily in the city’s fastest-growing areas, and increasing the police presence in other neighborhoods.

But first he wants to keep more of the officers he already has. Besides the 197 with five or fewer years experience, he has 46 with 30 years or more. The latter will be able to retire at age 55, and typically those experienced officers leave the city and go to work elsewhere, he said. To improve the pay through the ranks, he needs $5.34 million a year, he said, enough to boost starting pay from around $30,000 to about $38,000, and bump up other salaries for more experienced and higher ranking officers.

Boren said it costs $51,500 to equip a police officer with all the gear, including the computer and the car, and it takes six months to train one. Then the officer’s on probation for 18 months.

In addition to staffing needs, Boren said the police department needs more equipment, new police precincts, an evidence warehouse and an upgraded and an expanded 911 center. He said police calls have increased dramatically in four beats: around Oliver Dam and Bibb City; the Peachtree Mall area; Columbus Park Crossing and the Victory Drive and North Lumpkin Road area. The department so struggles to keep up with 911 calls that investigators must be diverted to answer them, he said.

Councilors asked Boren to prioritize his budget requests in case voters during a July 15 referendum reject a proposed 1 percent sales tax to be devoted primarily to public safety. Boren said he already was compiling two sets of numbers, one for if the tax passes and one for if it does not.