City eyes crime task force

Published 8:44 am Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The City Council agreed informally Monday to appoint a task force that would explore solutions to rising crime in the city.

Mayor Jim Councill’s recommendation of a task force followed a lengthy presentation by Police Chief Phil Hardison to the council and a standing-room-only crowd of citizens at City Hall.

Hardison presented statistics showing a rapid escalation of gun crimes in recent years and asked for 10 additional police officers to combat illegal drugs, which he identified as the “nexus” of the crime problem. The additional manpower would cost the city about $500,000 annually in salaries and benefits and at least $250,000 initially in vehicles and equipment, he said.

The consequences of not acting could be dire, Hardison said.

“Each year we put this off, our problems are going to be compounded,” he said. “If we don’t do something different from what we’ve been doing, these (crime rates) are going to increase and go off the chart.”

Councill, noting that a significant increase in the city’s property tax rate would be needed to fund 10 new officers, said the crime problem will not be fixed by law enforcement alone.

“This is not a police problem. It’s a city problem in which we all have a stake,” the mayor said. “The solutions are among us all. I would like to entertain that we establish a task force within the city that would engage all partners. Partners need to be those who care enough to do something, not just talk. They need to become part of the solution, and it needs to be collective.

“It can be called a crime task force, but it’s not just about crime. It’s about the kind of quality of life we’d all like to enjoy. There are a number of solutions, a number of places where young people can go and gather, but it’s going to require lot of volunteer help. We can talk about it, or we can step up and do.”

Hardison said the number of weapon discharges reported to police increased from 20 in 2005 to 78 in 2008. Possession and concealed weapon violations increased from four to 22 in the same period. Aggravated assaults rose from 21 to 34.

The additional officers, who would take up to 24 months to hire and train, would be assigned to enforcement of drug laws. Five would work on drug interdiction, including open-air street sales, gang suppression and intelligence. The other five would handle long-term covert drug investigations, old drug cases, and asset forfeitures and seizures.

Hardison said he would include the additional manpower in his annual budget request to the city manager. The city has begun work on its fiscal 2010 budget, which will be adopted in early June.