For months, Mayor Dewey Bartlett and City Councilor Karen Gilbert have been pushing for a dedicated revenue stream to hire 140 police officers.
Now, city officials are looking at ways to boost that number, hiring a total of 175 additional officers.
But first, they have to figure out how to pay for it.
“After we have the (cost) numbers presented to us, then we can figure out which funding mechanism to use,” Gilbert said.
Councilors made their decision to look at hiring even more officers after receiving an independent report that recommends the Police Department increase its number of sworn officers to 958. That’s 175 more officers than the department is currently authorized to have.
The report, prepared by the Institute of Crime Science at the University of Cincinnati, found that the Tulsa Police Department is seriously understaffed.
“There are … very few cities in this country that are this far understaffed,” Robin Engel, professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, told city councilors during a Public Safety Task Force meeting.
Engel and her colleague, Nicholas Corsaro, compared Tulsa’s police staffing levels to places like Newark, N.J. and Detroit, Mich., and East St. Louis, Mo.
The difference between Tulsa and those cities? Tulsa “is not an economically strapped city,” Corsaro said.
Gilbert and Bartlett have proposed extending portions of the Vision 2025 and Improve Our Tulsa sales taxes to fund public safety. The plan, as currently proposed, would pay for 140 police officers as well as additional firefighters and street maintenance crews.
The Vision 2025 sales tax expires at the end of 2016 and Improve Our Tulsa sales tax will expire no later than 2022. Together, the taxes would raise an estimated $27.5 million a year.
But at least one city councilor said Tuesday he’s not sure that would be enough revenue to pay for the current proposal and 35 more officers.
“It seems like the council is trying to lean toward doing the recommended (number of officers) from this study,” said Councilor David Patrick. “To do that, we are going to have to look at some other different funding.”
Jarred Brejcha, the mayor’s chief of staff, disagrees.
“Being 35 short of this recommendation is really not that far off and it speaks to our being on the right track rather than needing to choose another route,” Brejcha said. “Further, it is so important to prioritize this now that it would be a deviation from priorities if we used something other than Vision.”
Brejcha said the plan all along has been to implement the public safety plan in phases, as revenue comes in. Under this approach, the city would have time to modify its plan as needed to reach its manpower goals while keeping within its projected revenue stream.
“There is only so much that can be done in the short- and medium-term before we should reassess and measure progress,” Brejcha said. “We can take this proposal and implement it in phases or in whole and see where we are.”
Councilor Phil Lakin said the mayor’s public safety proposal “tries to allocate percentages to needs, before we know the true costs of those needs.”
Lakin said the city needs to first determine the cost of the other likely Vision renewal projects, including river development and other economic-development proposals, before the funding package can be finalized.
“The sum of these costs will then suggest the type of tax package we should present to voters for initial reaction and public comment,” Lakin said. “Ultimately, the voters will tell us what type of package to put on the April ballot for a final vote.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the public safety tax needs to be permanent.
Bynum said the tax needs to be permanent “because this is a life-and-death need that has been identified.”
Engel and Corsaro on Tuesday stressed the need for more patrol officers, noting that currently 80 percent of officers’ time is spent responding to calls, leaving little or no time for pro-active policing.
As first reported by The Frontier on Monday, an independent study has recommended that the Tulsa Police Department hire up 200 new police officers. The report made the following key findings:
Current manpower levels also leave little time for officers to get out and meet the residents they protect — a policing strategy near and dear to Chief Chuck Jordan.
Jordan said after Tuesday’s meeting that he agrees with the findings of the study and supports the recommendations presented to councilors but that he will continue to push for community-based policing as well.
“When you talk numbers, you don’t talk community policing,” Jordan said. “There are a lot of intangibles. Just making people feel comfortable with their police force, enhancing trust, lessoning the perception of crime.”
How long it will take Tulsa to get another 175 officers is another unknown. Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks told councilors that in theory the Police Department could train as many as 90 new officers a year.
But he cautioned after the meeting that funding, availability of candidates and the department’s high entrance standards for the Police Academy all play a role in determining how long it would take to reach the manpower goal.
“We are not going to lower our standards,” Brooks said.
Engel warned that the city won’t solve all of its crime problems simply by hiring more police officers.
She suggested that the city engage in a thoughtful, staggered process of hiring police officers. This would prevent the department’s training personnel from being overwhelmed and allow time to plan strategically for how new officers would be used.
“If you bulk up now and just take anyone that applies or that meets the minimum threshold, you then have those officers for their career,” Engel said. “You don’t want all of those officers, you want the best of those potential recruiting classes.”