Do police wear financial handcuffs?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Last weekend, Ironton police were forced to call in assistance from a battery of other agencies to help them handle an incident that involved an estimated 100-200 people.

An estimated five to eight people were reported to have been hit over the head with a beer bottles, and one person's injury required a hospital visit. The department's log shows such incidents happen more frequently than many residents may realize. In April 2003, officers contended with two large disputes in one weekend, one of which reportedly involved rival biker gangs. The other dispute reportedly involved 60 to 80 people in a dispute about two groups of children.

Now, police officers are asking for more manpower to ease an ever-increasing workload and to prevent incidents that could cause major injury to officers and civilians alike.

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Good old days

Ironton Police Chief Bill Garland said when he first joined the city police force in the mid 1980s, he came in as officer 24.

With five officers per shift, two officers rode together in the evenings

going from bar to bar, conducting "walk-throughs." The frequent sight of

these officers, Garland said, had a preemptive effect on rowdiness that had the potential to get out of hand, something he wishes were true today. While officers still make "walk-throughs," it is only when employees at an establishment call and request it, and that is usually once they've noticed a problem.

"Now, we're just reactive instead of being proactive," Garland said. "We just run from call to call and we're hardly keeping up with it."

With the city's financial problems and plant closings, the 24 officers dwindled to the present 14, two per shift.

Garland pointed out that a fight involving three or four intoxicated people requires more than one officer, or even two. James Poindexter, the Ashland, Ky., man who allegedly started the fight last weekend, was allegedly intoxicated

and had to be "Tazed" three times to subdue him enough to be handcuffed and taken to jail. (A Tazer is a device that uses low voltage electric current to subdue out-of -control subjects).

Garland said incidents involving alcohol and drugs can escalate into violence quickly and officer injuries in the line of duty are commonplace. Officers responding to the fight last weekend walked away with scrapes and bruises; Sgt. Tony Forest suffered broken finger breaking up a fight last year.

"Although events as big as Saturday night's fight don't happen very often, they do happen," Garland said. "We understand the city is financially strapped but I'm afraid someone is going to get seriously hurt. We are undermanned."

Wish list

Garland said in an ideal world, he would have six more officers than what he has now: a police force of 20, which would equate to one officer for every 637 people, instead of the current ratio of one officer for every 910 people.

"We need four officers per shift to come up to the standard I would consider safe," Garland said. "We absolutely need three officers per shift. We could have a fight call and have three or four people (civilians) involved and the other officer could be tied up on a traffic accident. This leaves us wide open for someone to get seriously hurt."

The cost of adding one officer to the streets is not cheap. Ironton City Finance Director Cindy Anderson said annual salary and benefits for one officer who has two years' experience and has completed his or her probationary period is approximately $50,000.

Making do with less

Officers are quick to point out their workload has increased substantially over the years, even though the city's population has decreased. Ironton police detective Jim Carey said that last year, officers handled 12,000 calls. To date, officers have responded to 8,398 calls and opened 657 cases that required investigation.

The department log reveals that often, calls requesting assistance with violent or potentially violent incidents are common place. In the early morning hours just after midnight Saturday, Sept. 18 between midnight and 1:22 a.m.,

there were two calls requesting assistance with "fights" and five calls requesting assistance with "trouble." The following night, officers were called to handle two fights and were advised of two assaults, all between 2:03 a.m. and 4:33 a.m.

"The biggest problem we see coming up is drugs," Ironton Police Capt. Jim Carey said. "I'd say 80 to 90 percent of thefts and robberies are drug-related, people trying to get money to buy drugs."

Carey said not only has drug use increased, but the use of so-called "harder" drugs has skyrocketed as well. "When I first came marijuana was the big thing," he said. "Now probably the biggest things are prescriptions drugs and crack cocaine."

Helping hands

Garland said while other law enforcement agencies have been kind and willing to lend assistance and he is thankful for it, the response time is not often good because these officers must leave what they are doing in their own community to come to Ironton. This in itself opens up a whole new set of problems for the officer that gives the mutual aid. For instance, if an officer from another Lawrence County law enforcement agency comes to aid an Ironton officer, there is a good chance that he or she leaves their own jurisdiction without adequate protection.

If the officer comes from out of state, as in last weekend's fight, this opens up a whole new set of problems regarding jurisdiction and, if the visiting officer is injured, questions about compensation.

"The only time we have jurisdictional power, and have power of arrest, by state law, is when we are in fresh pursuit involving a felony," Ashland, Ky., police Capt. Todd Kelley said. That is because in most cases,

the jurisdictional authority of law enforcement officers stops at the state line.

For instance, an Ashland, Ky., officer may arrest a person in Catlettsburg, Ky., and vice-versa. but an Ashland officer cannot come to Ironton and make an arrest; he or she can only assist officers here.

Furthermore, worker's compensation insurance and claims for disability benefits may be voided if the officer is injured, since he or she was out of state when the injury occurred.

What do other cities do?

Ironton's police officer to citizen ratio is high, 1:910, compared to other similar cities.

Cambridge, near Zanesville has 749 fewer people than Ironton, but 24 officers on its police force. That means with a population of 13,500, Cambridge has one officer for every 562 people.

Bucyrus, 67 miles north of Columbus, has a population of 13,496

and a police force of 20 officers, including the chief.

This equates to one officer for every 672 civilians.

"We're short by 2 right now, but city finances don't allow us to hire," dispatcher Jenni Gerger said.

Across the river in Ashland, Ky., a police force of 48 patrols a city of 23,000, roughly one officer for every 479 people.

Those ratios are ones Garland wishes he had to work with.

"Safety is the big issue," Garland said. "Because of the city's financial problems we're forced to work this way. Hopefully things will get better."