FAIRMONT - In the past, Fairmont Police Department prided itself on its efforts to prevent crime. Today, its officers are working just as hard, but struggling to keep up.
That was the message repeatedly driven home during a presentation to the City Council on Monday.
For 2014, the budget is set and the department will have to make due, but Police Chief Greg Brolsma hopes the council will increase his budget in 2015 to hire another full-time officer. Right now the department is staffed at its lowest in years: 15 full-time officers, including the chief, his lieutenant, three sergeants, one detective and nine patrolmen.
Excluded in the count is the animal control/ordinance officer and two civilians in administration.
To add to the challenge, one of the remaining 15 officers is currently unable to work due to an injury.
A lot of figures were used Monday, but the most alarming was not the ratio of officers to civilians. (Fairmont's ratio is 1.39 officers per 1,000 people - on the low end of the scale in comparison to other similar-sized cities.) What has Brolsma most concerned is the number of serious crimes handled per officer - Part I and Part II offenses that law enforcement agencies are required to report to the federal government.
In 2012, the math shows 82 serious crimes for each of Fairmont's 15 officers. That puts Fairmont second to Mankato when compared to similar-sized cities.
"I don't think this is a good trend for the future," Brolsma said.
According to his research, the way to control those serious crimes is to communicate and work collaboratively with other agencies on juvenile intervention, substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness. But that kind of approach takes manpower.
"We're getting to be a very reactionary police department," Brolsma said.
Among the worst of the crimes taking place in Fairmont is drug use, specifically methamphetamines. Officer Chad Sanow was able to focus full time on narcotics when he first started working for Fairmont PD in 2004. Not anymore. Going from 17 officers to 15, the department lost 4,000 man hours.
Meth use dropped for a couple of years, and pills picked up in 2012. But now meth is back and worse than ever, according to police.
"Fairmont's a great community, but we do have a drug problem we've got to get a handle on," Sanow said.
The serious crimes aren't the only trouble, though. The number of ordinance violations reported is going up every year, and it's getting more difficult for the lone animal control/ordinance officer to keep up - especially since he has been needed more often to fill in when the department is running short due to vacation, sick days, etc.
The position of school resource officer has suffered too. Officer Jaime Bleess has been working with Fairmont Area Schools for 10 years. But these days, Bleess is being stretched in too many directions to give the school district the attention it needs, he reported Monday.
"The call load's been very high," he said. "My ability to be at the school is almost zero. If we don't do anything, I'm afraid we'll lose that connection."
There are other negative consequences of overworked police officers that were discussed Monday.
The increased workload - and accompanying paperwork - has forced the police department to prioritize its cases and push more things to the back-burner. Residents who call in to report complaints are becoming disappointed by slow follow-up, acknowledged Teresa Lenort, who serves on the city's civil service commission.
The situation is getting ugly, according to Bleess. When officers are so busy for months at a time, they can't unwind and the pressure builds. That kind of stress over time is unhealthy and potentially dangerous.Paul Hoye, Fairmont's finance director, reported the police department's budget has decreased in the past five years. Health insurance is the only expense item that has increased, but the city has doubled deductibles and co-insurance, and hiked co-pays and prescription coverage.
Future expenses for Fairmont PD include technology upgrades for its soon-to-be obsolete laptops, which will cost about $5,000 each. Sanow also warned that his K-9 partner Jango is 7 years old and likely will retire in the next couple of years. Jango cost $7,000 to purchase and thousands of dollars to train.
"We need to start thinking about this. [Jango has] found a lot of bad guys, and he's found a lot of dope," Sanow said.
Monday's meeting was a quarterly budget work session focusing solely on the police department. The council will meet next quarter at the streets and parks building.