A consultant studying the Wichita Police Department last year said police staffing was “basically where it was about 10 years ago.”
So now at 11 years, the city has started to do something about it, but with a cost: the $3.2 million this year to add 32 positions — most of them officers — will come from the section of the city budget dedicated to capital improvements.
It starts an interesting debate: Are we a city that is willing to put off projects that enhance or beautify our communities for increased public safety?
In this case, we should be.
Adding 73 positions to the police department over three years — 49 officers and 24 support staff — is an overdue move. That consultant’s report noted hiring that many more in the department would only bring it up to the average size of force for a city Wichita’s size.
Police Chief Gordon Ramsay is a fan of ride-alongs with his officers, and at the Citizen Review Board’s first public meeting last month, he told of an evening when the officers he accompanied rushed from call to call. There was no time for building relationships, no chance to enable residents on their beat to get to know the officers.
The city’s move, which has to be approved as part of the city budget in August, is a strong first step.
The community is torn after incidents shook public trust — most notably the Dec. 28 officer-involved shooting death of Andrew Finch that began as a swatting call — and residents are needing to see evidence that police want to rebuild that trust through one-on-one communication that doesn’t start with a 911 report.
More officers on the street enable that, which in turn should help lower crime rates.
Meanwhile, the city’s capital improvement budget takes the hit. Projects already under development could be delayed, and looming budget deficits put a large unknown on how long the city would have to borrow from capital improvements.
The last thing the city needs is to continue pulling from improvements in a way that resembles the Kansas Legislature borrowing from highway funds.
City Council members said they’re interested in final Project Wichita conclusions for an indication of what the community wants in its city by 2028.
Just Wednesday, Project Wichita released the broad topics most discussed during 239 focus groups in the spring. “Strong neighborhoods and communities” was one topic, but breaking that down gets to the heart of the debate about moving city money: public safety is one facet of strong communities, other facets are infrastructure and projects that keep neighborhoods thriving.
Rates of crimes have increased in most violent categories from the first four months of 2017 to the same months in 2018. Ramsay and District Attorney Marc Bennett see a correlation between crime and meth use as part of the problem.
There is one way around shrinking the capital improvement budget: higher property taxes. But that’s not going to happen. While we’re a city that wants a better sense of security in neighborhoods, a tax increase is probably not how most Wichitans want it.
City leaders will have to look for fiscal solutions in adding officers over the second and third years. Projected budget deficits of $5.1 million in four years add an urgency to the hunt, but they shouldn’t stop the plan that gets more officers into communities as they work to prevent crime instead of chase it.