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Study suggests new metrics for determining number of police officers

Friday, August 16, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The perennial discussion of how the Austin Police Department should determine the appropriate number of officers it should hire to serve the City of Austin took something of a turn on Wednesday. There, referring to the findings of a police patrol study commissioned by Council members, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo moved markedly away from what has been the city’s preferred method of determining police force strength.


“I think the two per thousand – they’re right, you’re right, we’re all right – it’s not a good metric,” Acevedo said.


Acevedo may well have been referring at least partially to Council Member Bill Spelman. Spelman is a vocal critic of the use of the 2.0 officers per thousand residents calculation, and has, for sometime, pushed Acevedo and his department toward a business case-based approach to the appropriate size of APD.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell also agreed that 2.0 may not be the best metric. However, Leffingwell – in a statement designed to back up Acevedo – suggested that the formula could still be used as a “backstop.”


“To me, the 2.0 is not the scalpel it’s the axe,” Leffingwell said. “To me, when we get down to 2.0 per thousand, that raises the red flags.”


Acevedo did not directly refute Spelman’s figures. However, the Chief told Council members that there was more to the story. He suggested that post-September 11 societal changes, changes to the fundamental practices of police work, and increased levels of paperwork had all also contributed to a drop in uncommitted police time.


“The nature of the profession, the nature of the business, the nature of the challenges and the crimes that we are investigating today – we didn’t have detectives doing the cyber crimes, that was unheard of,” Acevedo said. “So it’s not an apples to oranges comparison, as you would say.”


For his part, Spelman pushed hard on the department at Wednesday’s budget work session. There, he ran over a series of calculations he performed. These, he suggested, indicate that though the city’s crime rate has remained relatively flat, and the number of officers increased dramatically, APD still claims to suffer from an unacceptable level of uncommitted officer time – when sworn members of the force might otherwise engage in community policing activities such as attending community meetings or spending time with residents.


“If the number of calls for service is flat – we’ve increased by two percent, it’s basically flat – and the number of officers available to respond to those calls has gone up by almost 50 percent, all of those other factors must be extremely important in order to sop up all of that time,” Spelman said.


Near the end of the discussion, Spelman – in response to a statement from Leffingwell suggesting that the discussion was a “déjà vu event” – identified the obvious shift in the discussion. “This is a qualitatively different discussion than we had,” Spelman said. “Last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, we were talking about why 2.0 is the wrong metric. We’re no longer talking about that. Now we’re talking about a much more interesting and important issue and that is: How do we respond to changing events, changing workloads in terms of resources.”


Meanwhile, the city’s Public Safety Commission has requested that Council members beef up staff’s request of 47 new sworn APD officer positions, and raise that figure to 92. Council took no action Wednesday.

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