Duluth explores options for combining police and fireby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth's police officers are feeling the squeeze from the city's tight budget. The city's police department is working short-staffed at a time when crime seems to be on the rise.
Some city residents are complaining about slow investigations into serious crimes. A new committee will consider whether some kind of consolidation between the police and fire departments can provide Duluth citizens better protection while saving money at the same time.
Duluth, Minn. — Rachel Scott was terrified. Late in the night someone she didn't know was trying to get into her house, and he kept trying, shaking the door, trying to break it open.
The intruder left, and the police did come, but Scott says there was very little follow-up. Until she went to city hall and pushed, no one had offered to take her statement, and Scott thinks she knows why.
"They don't have the staff. We have an excellent police force, but they are not given the resources that they need," said Scott. "We need a crime unit that can follow up on these crimes, and my crime is nothing compared to the crimes of women who have been raped and haven't even been interviewed."
Sexual assault investigations have been slow, according to Candice Harshner, Director of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault. A five person police investigative team is short two positions.
"What I know is that it is taking much longer for investigators to actually get to speak to victims. And that that's - and that's concerning, in terms of the impact on the victim after a sexual assault. And that's not the fault of the police," said Harshner. "They, I do believe, are doing the best that they can, and they're very committed to finding another investigator for the unit. But, they're very short staffed."
City statistics show total crime increased 6 percent from 2005 to 2006, the latest numbers available. The number of murders declined but rapes and assaults increased. Police officials say they do have to prioritize, and property crimes take lower priority. They're trying to fill open positions in the sexual crimes unit.
With 140 cops, the department staff is ten positions below what the city authorizes, and according to Police Union President Sergeant Jon Haataja, it's 30 below what's ideal. Haataja says that has to have an effect on crime fighting.
"Our call load has done nothing but increase over the last decade. Even longer. And we're just constantly trying to keep up," said Haataja.
Duluth police have been hit by a combination of retirements and a hiring freeze that lasted several years. There's been some trouble getting new recruits.
So now the city is considering freeing up money for more cops by sharing functions with the city's firefighters. It's something that's been done in places like Kalamazoo, Mich. There, the fire rigs have minimal staffs, and the police are expected to show up and pitch in at firefighting.
While it's unclear how a merger would work, Sergeant Haataja says it could help crime fighting.
"Police departments would benefit, because it is putting more officers on the street to respond to police calls," said Haataja. "The flip side to that is they are going to respond to police calls as well as fire calls, so it's kind of a two edged sword in that regard."
He admits it's not an idea everyone is warming to. Many police officers, he says, never intended to be firefighters. And firefighters would have to become licensed to do police work.
"And so, to now train them, with our state requirements of a two year degree, and licensing requirements; training period in the squad car; it's a huge hurdle," explained Haataja.
A panel will consider how to blend the departments and just how much firefighting cops should do and vice versa. But it's worth considering, according to Duluth Deputy Police Chief John Beyer.
"I think everybody is aware that the budget is tight, and we need to learn to work smarter and better together," said Beyer. "And I really believe that everybody in this case is open minded to take a hard look at it and see, what can we do to differently; how could we save money; how could we improve services; how could we work collaboratively on more things."
Duluth Mayor Don Ness says the goal is collaboration between police and firefighters, and not necessarily full integration. And Ness says the idea can be studied without spending a lot of money, by tapping sources like the Internet, rather than expensive travel.
- All Things Considered, 07/30/2008, 5:24 p.m.