Report: Clinton police department 'woefully' understaffed

Clinton Herald File PhotoAccording to Etico Solutions — a consulting firm hired by the city of Clinton to conduct a police staffing evaluation — Clinton officers have adopted a "call-to-call" mentality because of low staffing numbers. This has caused incidents to go "underreported" and allowed improper documentation.

CLINTON — "Antiquated" software. "Undocumented" or "underreported" work. "Deteriorating" solvability of crimes. Officer "burn-out." An "understaffed" department. 

"Limitations."

These phrases (and variations of them) are found up and down a 58-page report published by Etico Solutions, Inc. and released by the city of Clinton this week. It's called "The Clinton Iowa Police Department Resource Allocation and Deployment Study."

Since November 2013, Etico — an independent consulting firm based in Macomb, Illinois — has combed nearly every inch of police operations, even making note of Clinton Police Chief Brian Guy's late February retirement announcement. Fueling the findings are heavy dives into police man hours, lengthy interviews, observations of officers, numerous outside studies and statistics, tables, graphs, comparisons and commentary on best law enforcement practices.

Among its many conclusions: CPD is woefully understaffed. It's a department with 44 on payroll. Etico recommends the city should make 24 hires (among them 14 new patrol officers and five new detectives) to adequately staff its force.

And now it's in the hands of the Clinton City Council, which will be faced with the results during a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. April 9. City officials have declined comment until the meeting.

"(T)he city is strongly encouraged to do the best they can in the short term and then plan strategically for a long-term plan to bring the police department staffing levels back to where they need to be," the report states in its final summary.

This is not a new allegation. In October, the Clinton Police bargaining union made some of the same assertions under oath. Workload was cited as a reason why it won its arbitration suit against the city, and it prompted a lengthy discussion about police staffing during budget season.

Meanwhile, Etico states staffing levels present officers with a "lack of time," forcing them to be "reactive" rather than "proactive." This affects its ability to proficiently prevent crimes, especially as average patrol levels are about half what should be expected.

According to the study, many of the issues begin with technology that falls well below modern law enforcement standards.

Soft software

"(Clinton Police) has reached a point where they need to turn to newer technologies and improved communication of needs in order to accomplish the task before them." — Page 58

Etico consultants first landed in Clinton on Nov. 13, 2013, when, for three days, it set out to make contact with the main parties involved. This meant meeting officials from the Clinton County Communication Center, the Criminal Investigations Division, patrol officers, police administration and regular office personal.

The visitors made note of "initial observations," many of which were corroborated in the months to follow. Something that immediately stuck out was the department's "Computer Aided Dispatch" (CAD), the software department's use to track officer workload.

Etico planned to use findings from the CAD to base its conclusions. It was quickly apparent that the software was not going to be much help.

"After several months had been spent examining numerous CAD export files... it became clear that the historical workload data for the agency was seriously flawed," Etico wrote in its introduction. The CCCC uses an application called "Sleuth Systems," a program that has not been updated "in many years and the functionality needed for modern law enforcement operations is either not present or not in use."

This presents law enforcement a number of problems in records keeping and understanding workload, according to the report. Some of the issues:

• 70 percent of final disposition codes were missing, "making it impossible to determine how (emergency) calls ended."

• Unrecorded police activities.

• "Limited geographic information" that eliminates administration's ability to determine if "police beats" are working effectively "since the data cannot be mapped spatially."

• A separate, also outdated software program — the Records Management System (RMS) — that butts against the CAD and "has a detrimental effect on the ability to calculate workload."

The department, based on its software, is losing "information that may help reduce crime."

According to Etico: "During the initial meeting with the shift supervisors and department commanders, it was confirmed that many work activities being performed by the patrol officers were not being documented in the CAD."

Because CAD data was too unreliable, Etico had to circumvent its normal process for analyzing staff efficiency. It turned instead to the "Benchmark Surveying" method, an approach that "isn't preferred" but capable of making conclusions as "the next best alternative." This involves polling data from cities nationwide to offer comparisons to staffing levels, volume of crime, budgets and other nuances of police operations.

The CAD yielded some information used in some of Etico's findings. But the most glaring revelation was the ramifications of not having proper technology at police disposal.

"(S)evere technical limitations due to the current CAD system will prevent optimal performance by the CPD until a system upgrade has been completed," states the report.

Understaffed, overworked

"(I)t was rare to see patrol officers standing around inside the police department. During meetings with the shift, there were many times when officers were called away from the meetings to take a call in progress." — Page 13

Etico recommends the following additions in the next three to four years: needs for one records clerk, two property room/evidence technicians, a full-time property/evidence custodian, five detectives and 14 patrol officers. However, the consultants recognize that as a function of the city budget, such increases are much easier said than done.

"An increase of this magnitude is most likely impossible for a city the size of Clinton to manage in a given year," Etico states in its conclusion summary. However, it was strongly encouraged that the changes take place over time, with the addition of eight patrol officers in the next year.

By averaging the benchmarks of other cities, Clinton fell below the norm in five staff divisions. Lack of investigators, in particular, was one of the first notes taken upon arrival.

Understaffing encourages a "call-to-call" nature within the department. It forces CPD to be "reactive" rather than "proactive." It's a behavior strongly recommended against by Etico.

Officers "react" to emergency calls. They are "proactive" when they are prompting investigations and taking crime preventative measures. The study concludes that proactive law enforcement reduces crime by heading it off.

In Clinton, officers don't have enough time to be proactive, Etico says.

"Agencies that operate call-to-call report several drawbacks," it notes. "The most obvious being the inevitable officer burn-out that can occur.

"Less obvious is the loss of information that may help reduce crime. It is an accepted axiom for police investigations that the solvability of a case begins to deteriorate from the moment the incident occurs. If the initial responding officer is rushed to move on to the next call, there is a greater chance that important follow-up opportunities and information will not be collected, diminishing the solvability of the case."

Proactive law enforcement, the study adds, improves quality of life, cutting down dangerous driving habits, finding and addressing city "trouble spots" and increasing officer visibility to deter crime. The study also indicates that the call volume for individual officers leads to lower-than-recommended time spent on in-field training.

Poor technology and workload fuel another major problem for Etico: Several incidents in the city are routinely and improperly reported.

Call-to-call approaches

"(T)here is often strong encouragement by administrators, supervisors and other officers to address calls quickly and to maintain a minimal response time." — Page 19

To Etico, this is the drawback to being a reactive police force. To outsiders, it may look like officers are making efficient use of time, tackling incidents in high quantity.

But according to the firm, tallying calls isn't what determines a desired workload. It's the number of hours officers put in to those incidents.

Of course, the study finds that the department is staffed at two-thirds the level Clinton's crime volume requires. Thus, according to Etico, it's common to find patrolmen in scenarios like this:

"Many officers place a higher emphasis on keeping the call-for-service queue clear than on properly documenting the actual amount of work being performed... In this scenario, an officer may advise the dispatcher to clear a disturbance call as soon as the officer arrives on scene... The officer's intention is to get the call out of the call-for-service queue quickly so that other calls can be addressed. However, by asking the dispatcher to clear the call prematurely, the CAD data reflects a call that takes three minutes when, realistically, the call may have consumed 20 to 25 minutes of the officer's time."

Through interviews, Etico found that practices like this are taking place within CPD. Officers call off back-up units to free them up for other calls in the city, and they log half of the time for non-officer safety incidents than what they should.

Conclusions

More evidence of an overworked force found by Etico: Among 30 benchmark cities, Clinton had third highest quantity of part I crimes (rape, homicide, robbery, arson, motor vehicle theft, etc.) per capita. Clinton had the second most part I crime assignments per sworn officer.

According to the study, all of this stems from current technological and personnel resources. The focus is placed on the most "major" crimes in the city.

"Agency administrators estimate that at least 200 serious cases per year with some level of solvability remain unassigned due to lack of resources," Etico states.

Just by looking at Clinton's drug crime profile, Etico found an illustration that summarizes the situation adequately. CAD data indicates drug cases rose between 2009 and 2013. Yet RMS states drug reports fell over that same time period.

So, Etico decided to get anecdotal evidence instead. It placed a call to Mercy Medical Center. An unnamed emergency room worker said "drug abuse, primarily a synthetic marijuana called 'K2' and meth have been increasing significantly over the last three to four years."

Then there was a call to an unnamed administrator at the Clinton Community School District.

"The administrator stated that their staff hears 'chatter' about drug abuse and drug sales from the students throughout the day... The administrator stated that the amount of chatter has increased over the last several years."

However, the study doesn't find fault with administrators of CPD, adding the department cannot control the resources its given. It mentions "economic scarcity," and Clinton's budget already devotes roughly 80 percent of its police budget to staffing levels. The department is the city's second most expensive, behind Clinton Fire.

This report isn't meant as a "police report card," Etico writes.

"The police administrators sought out and initiated this study voluntarily in an effort to improve operations and the ability to deliver the best public safety services to the citizens of Clinton, Iowa."

But there are numerous phrases: "police fatigue;" "redundant operations;" "unreliable" technology; "lack of funding;" "lack of personnel." All of them point to a need for serious change.

"The recommendations made in this report are in no way intended to indicate poor leadership or mismanagement inside the police department," Etico concludes. However, "In times of economic scarcity, 'that's the way we have always done it' is no longer a viable management model."

Assistant Editor Brenden West can be contacted at brendenwest@clintonherald.com.

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