Op Ed: On Police Cars, Dispatch System, and Hiring Cops

Full disclosure before this opinion-editorial piece begins. Yes, I do have police friends. Yes, I have talked with city workers so have gathered information from many reliable sources. No, I do not have all the answers, but I do have some answers. Yes, this is my opinion – one of which you may agree with or not. It is my personal opinion, but it is based on listening to the first-hand experiences and insights of those who do know the conditions of the current fleet, the current dispatch system, and the challenges faced by a relatively small number of officers.

So let’s go back a few months. Last summer there was much talk about a warning alert system for the city. When taxes were increased, this system was one of those items in the budget and it amounted to about one cent of that increase. In the end, the brakes were put on the system when it was learned that grant funding was a possibility to help pay for it.  This had not been disclosed to elected officials previously.  When Homeland Security grants could potentially pay for at least half the system, it made good financial sense to table the system on behalf of taxpayers to investigate a secondary funding option.

So the original one cent tax collection is still alive and well and unspent in the budget.

Remember that taxes went up 50 cents total?  What were the other 49 cents earmarked for?  Yes, there will be road repairs that will begin this spring, now that taxes are being collected. Yes, the city is purchasing some much needed equipment, including a street paver.  Also of note is that the 50 cent tax increase also was so budgeted in order to buy new police cars that would be cycled out through a lease system.  I understand that several years ago, the vehicle cycling program was started, but leadership never followed through with it.  As a result, significant funding has instead been spent on repairs.  I saw the chief driving a car over the weekend that literally had a wooden wedge stuck in a back window that was holding the window up. If our fleet was a human, you could diagnose it with kidney failure and the dialysis is barely keeping it alive.  How expensive is dialysis?  In the case of our fleet, the city paid $300,000 in vehicle repairs last year alone.  So yes – to prepare for the inevitable complete failure of the fleet, city officials HAD to raise taxes.

During the life of the lease, the cars would be under warranty.  At the end of the lease, the city could opt to purchase them outright or cycle them out. Yes it is an expensive endeavor in the beginning of the cycle, however (and this part is important to note), in the long run it will save the city thousands and thousands of dollars.  To me – and again this is my opinion – I would rather make this investment in public safety to adequately equip our police to protect and serve than to keep them driving in cars that are literally falling apart.  When repair work costs more each year than a vehicle is actually worth, that is a problem.

What do we do with the run-down vehicles once the new cars arrive?  Sell them on govdeals.com. The city web page has a link to city property that is no longer of use.  And hey if you go there right now, you’ll also see boxes and boxes of books for sale right now.

We also have a failing CAD (or computer aided dispatch) system. Chief Walker has stated it would cost $800,000 to replace it.  It might cost that. It might cost less than that.  The good news is if it costs less than that, we have $500,000 that was originally available for a warning system that went unspent, but taxes are still being collected for it.

Again my personal opinion, but I am all for making sure 911 calls are not lost.  I am just not willing to take the chance (even when it’s a tiny itty-bitty chance) that a life or death call will be lost.  Dispatchers type addresses in via keyboard as they gather information.  If an officer has been dispatched and asks again, “repeat the address” and the CAD system has lost it, then we depend on the memory of the dispatcher to repeat the address if the system hiccups.  In human terms, we now have kidney failure (police cars), plus congestive heart failure (the CAD system).

Let’s talk about the number of officers we have next.  Starting pay is just over $13.00 per hour for LaVergne police officers.  A meter reader on average according to salary.com earns $12.70 per hour.  A front office clerk is paid $14.50 per hour.  A dental assistant makes $12.50 per hour.  A roofer makes over $14.00 per hour.  We are so lucky in LaVergne to have police officers so dedicated to us that they do not jump ship and go to other jurisdictions. Yes, they give tickets. Yes, people get mad at them.  But they were hired to uphold the law and they do just that. If you don’t like a particular law (for example, I hate the 35 mph speed limit on some roads when really it should be 40), talk to the lawmakers. No, they will not fix your ticket, but they have the authority given to them by majority vote of the people to change laws.

But we’re talking about the police now.  Let’s face it.  LaVergne has a pretty crappy reputation for crime.  But we also have a highly trained police force including a crime suppression unit, SWAT team, criminal investigators, and patrol officers who are dedicated to reversing the reputation.  We have already seen a reduction in crime from 2010 to 2011.  And to use Chief Mike Walker’s words, more boots on the street mean less crime.

Here’s another little gem to consider.  That tax increase?   It allowed for more police to be hired.  So again, the money is there.

Taxes are being collected to improve this city.  Let’s allow the city to grow up and make these improvements.   Go ahead and ask questions because it’s our right, it’s your right. But keep an open mind and consider that perhaps the department directors know what they’re doing when they ask for equipment. Consider the police know what they’re saying when their cars are limping along. Consider that these elected folks really are working toward making this a better place to live.

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