Seeing spots in City’s strategic vision: Police, public safety shortfalls concern City Council

The first-year results of a five-year strategic vision for the City of Tacoma reveals shortcomings in the areas of public safety and policing, according to discussion during yesterday’s City Council study session.

The findings alarmed several councilmembers, who discussed a range of ideas for dealing with a staffing shortage within the Tacoma Police Department.

According to the results, the crime rate in Tacoma steadily rose last year from 18,703 incidents to 18,917; juvenile crime remained the same, with 1,356 incidents last year (down from 1,361 in 2004); and the number of emergency service calls related to chronic inebriates rose from 4,886 in 2004 to 5,073 in 2005.

“Our workload and caseload have grown,” said Police Chief Don Ramsdell. He told the council that Tacoma has the highest violent-crime rate in Washington state. “We realize we need to have a more proactive approach to policing.”

According to Ramsdell, staffing shortages have left police officers limited to reacting and responding to calls for service, instead of taking proactive crime-reduction steps. At the end of 2005, the department was short 25 officers.

Councilmember Mike Lonergan echoed those concerns.

“The realization is that the police, as they are now functioning, will not be able to bring reductions in crime because they are almost completely a reactive organization,” said Lonergan, who told council colleagues he spoke with Chief Ramsdell about this issue after a public safety committee meeting last week. “For officers on the street, the frustration is that they really are responding to crime after it happens.”

Councilmember Tom Stenger suggested the city go into an “over-hire” mode in order to fully staff the police department.

But Councilmember Julie Anderson cautioned that such a move couldn’t be made without first considering the city’s budgetary limitations. “That’s a significant expenditure that hasn’t been budgeted,” said Anderson. She called for the council to set aside time to discuss the issue more deeply. She also recommended that the city manager design an approach to public safety concerns that included impacts to the budget.

“I’m committed to fiscal restraint and doing it in context of the budget,” she added.

Councilmember Rick Talbert agreed.

“I would like to see those numbers so we can make a decision during the next budget.”

Ramsdell told councilmembers that his department is nearly completed with a strategic plan to reduce the crime rate through education, prevention, and community partnerships.

Though several councilmembers were concerned by the findings related to policing and public safety, Stenger cautioned against focusing on the strategic plan’s shortcomings.

“We need to remind people this is the first time we have done this,” said Stenger. “We set these goals, to a certain degree, without full knowledge of how to affect the results.”

Indeed, the plan is ambitious. It calls for an eight percent reduction in crime by 2010; five percent reduction in juvenile crime per year; and a 30 percent reduction in calls for service dealing with chronic inebriates. It also calls for a number of economic development goals, such as a five percent increase per year in new businesses, and a five percent annual increase in property values.

The strategic plan was created in 2004 after a series of City Council retreats. The plan designated three priority areas — a safe, healthy and livable community; balanced and vibrant economy; and a results-oriented government.