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VOL. 129 | NO. 15 | Thursday, January 23, 2014

‘Boots on Street’ Approach Re-Examined

By Bill Dries

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When most of the members of the Memphis City Council were elected in 2007 in the largest turnover of seats in the history of the council, some of the new members made their first priority increasing the ranks of the Memphis Police Department.

“Boots on the street” became the slogan for the anti-crime effort that blended with a statistics-driven approach to policing, putting cops specifically where the crime was.

As the same council members prepare to make hard funding choices to restore the stability of city finances, the approach is being questioned.

Discussions about a cure for Memphis' fiscal ills have city leaders examining the "boots on the street" approach to public safety.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. walked the council through some ideas for cuts in city spending beyond larger changes in city retirement and health benefits. Those obligations are the “cornerstone” of the efforts to get the city’s financial house in order, said city Chief Administrative Officer George Little.

Finding the money for that will mean shifting money from other areas of city government at about $15 million a year over the next five fiscal years. The police and fire departments are 80 percent of all city employees and 60 percent of city general fund spending.

“There’s reason to focus on public safety,” said David Eichenthal of Public Financial Management, the consulting firm advising the Wharton administration. “It’s not because it isn’t important but because it’s become such a dominant component of this city’s budget. Any time that you are talking about trying to identify opportunities for savings in the budget, it’s hard to overlook the component of the budget that’s accountable for 60 percent of the cost and 80 percent of the full-time employees and has been growing in number of employees while the remainder of the budget has been declining.”

The day of committee sessions at City Hall began with Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong telling the council that cuts could take his department down to a complement of 1,900 officers from its current 2,400.

Wharton and Little returned to the council’s executive session that afternoon to correct that, saying Armstrong was referring to 583 positions in the department the city has “frozen” or is not filling at least for now.

“We are not cutting 583 positions in the Memphis Police Department,” Little said several times.

Armstrong has warned several times since last year of police station closings and police possibly not answering some calls for service if his budget is cut. He did the same Tuesday.

Eichenthal said other major U.S. cities have been able to reduce crime without the same sort of buildup in personnel the Memphis Police Department has had over several years – a 28 percent increase from 2006 to 2011 of 450 more police officers.

“There are other cities similar in size to Memphis, cities of 500,000 or more, that during that same period were able to significantly reduce violent crime without the same sort of … increase in police,” he said.

Eichenthal also said uniformed Memphis Police officers perform duties that are handled by civilian employees in most other cities PFM surveyed.

And he said the fire department’s growth in expenses is driven “almost entirely” by staffing that is based on a model that doesn’t place firefighters and equipment based on where the calls for service are and the type of calls for services, which are mostly for emergency medical services, not fires. That is despite the fact that the PFM team found that Memphis had more fires than the other cities of similar size it surveyed.

“It would be a lot better if you could restructure deployment in such a way that it’s more responsive to actual demand and focus more on prevention,” he added.

Council member Janis Fullilove questioned how far such a shift in tactics and deployment toward prevention could go in providing the basic obligation of public safety.

“How do you make that determination?” she asked. “You just look at what happened at Wolfchase,” a reference to a weekend smash-and-grab robbery at a jewelry store in Wolfchase Galleria.

The PFM report also recommends consolidating the “back office” functions of both departments.

At its voting meeting later, the council approved hiring its own actuary or accounting firm to evaluate the administration’s numbers on the issue of the city’s unfunded pension liability and other critical financial information.

Little said the administration will be back at the February council sessions with a resolution that would change the city’s pension plan for future and unvested employees with less than 10 years of service to a defined contributions plan similar to a 401(k) plan instead of the current defined benefits plan.

Little said the council reception to the resolution would determine whether the administration tries to get an immediate vote on the resolution from the body.

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