Amarillo, TX - Amarillo City Councilman, Elisha Demerson, is proposing changes to local law enforcement.
Demerson announced six new recommendations for the Amarillo Police Department, something he said stems from his platform of public safety.
Five months of reviewing the APD and speaking with law enforcement leaders has given Councilman Demerson the foundation he said he needed to address changes at the department.
"I am now ready to make my recommendations," Demerson said.
His six proposed recommendations are comprehensive and will require outside professionals to assist.
"It is clear to me that our police department's needs have either been ignored or there has been a failure of leadership or inadequate funding levels," Demerson said.
The first proposed solution is a transition to community policing, something he calls the basis of police operations. Currently, the department has 24 vacant positions needed to be filled. Demerson said this will increase the force, while also giving the department the ability to place the same officers in the same communities on a regular basis.
He adds that community policing prevents and minimizes crime and builds mutual trust between the community and police.
"Number two, make immediate changes to the dispatch function to either return it to the Amarillo Police Department or have experienced Amarillo Police Department officers be on site supervisors," Demerson said.
Other recommendations include college hour requirements for police officers. Each recruit should be required to have at least 15 hours per year, Demerson said.
Another proposal is an upgraded recruitment process, which will upgrade the on-line capabilities of the APD. It is reported to be increasingly difficult for the APD to recruit a sufficient number of recruits who can pass the basic test. Minority officers are also said to become even more critical as our community grows and becomes more diverse.
An incentives and benefits program to professionalize the department was also proposed.
Lastly, Demerson announced the idea of a full-time public information officer available 24/7 to ensure the media and the public are kept in the know.
Demerson's fellow councilmen are aware of these recommendations, along with the City Manager and the Chief of Police.
"We can certainly see a lot of positive input," Sgt. Brent Barbee of the APD, said. "The chief is, I know, appreciative of any level input or observation from the council and city administrators, or anyone that has some ideas that they'd like for him to consider about."
However, it all comes down to funding if these ideas are to be implemented.
Demerson said a significant amount of money over a 5 to 8 year period will bring Amarillo up to par with other cities. He is confident there are federal grants available. He will propose to the council for consideration that they pass an "Amarillo Police Professionalization and Community Safe Act," for this multi-year, multi-budget project.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently awarded nearly $12 million to advanced community policing efforts and reform, something Demerson said should his recommendations should qualify for.
Amarillo Citizens for Open Government was also on board with the recommendations, however it does believe they could be taken a step further.
"I agree with Councilman Demerson that they are understaffed," Jeff Blackburn, a local attorney and adviser of ACOG, said. "I think this is one of the reasons they can't do community policing, because they don't have enough officers there. And they certainly don't have enough well trained officers. And all that's great, but in the end what's really going to matter is whether our community has oversight of the police department."
Blackburn said without this, the APD can have infinite funding, but until the community has a say and a role in the process of policing, we will see problems.
Demerson said he views police function as the very cornerstone of order and civility in the community. He hopes these proposed changes are a step in the right direction.
Below is, Amarillo Chief of Police, Robert Taylor's full response to Demerson's recommendations.
"In reference to Councilman Elisha Demerson's proposals, the police department welcomes suggestions in how we can improve department operations. While we have a very professional staff, I am a firm believer in continuous improvement and will always listen to constructive suggestions. The APD is engaged in community policing and welcomes any opportunity to increase our efforts in this area. Some of the things we do now are:
Officers from the Uniformed Division and specialized units go before community groups and many schools to teach the public about the police department and what we do. It also fosters good relationships and understanding of the police role and the need for public involvement to assure success. Recently, some of our officers volunteered their time to participate in a program of reading to students, so I think our officers are engaged in many ways.
We provide a Citizens Police Academy and a Students Police Academy that enables interested citizens even down to high school age to learn a great deal about how the police department operates. We have developed many good relationships from these classes and have hired a number of the graduates.
Each summer, we hold the Lisa Cherry Summer Camp for kids that are too young to participate in the Student Police Academy. The department provides "officer friendly" appearances at scout groups, day cares, and public and private schools for "Community Caretaker" and "Community Hero" type programs. This enables us to reach children at very early age, involving them in understanding the police role and laying a positive foundation for their relationship with police officers.
The APD provides another component of community policing, proactive crime prevention education to the public, through social media: Twitter, Nextdoor, Nixle, and the Amarillo Crime Stoppers Face Book page. We maintain a unit of the Department that is responsible for crime prevention education, the Crime Prevention Unit, that speaks to-and listens to- hundreds of people from various civic and community organizations. They provide information about programs like Neighborhood Watch and community crime issues. I believe this increases our accountability by enabling informal, two way communications, and problems or concerns are brought directly to my office.
The PD has reallocated patrol resources away from "emergency call system," when possible, and emphasized ProActive Criminal Enforcement Unit efforts or used overtime expenditures so that we can work directly on proactive policing. Citizens of Amarillo often call to report crime problems that are occurring in their neighborhood. These problems often require significant time and resources to correctly address. The PACE units are assigned to address these on-going criminal problems. The PACE officers are given assignments to correct neighborhood crime problems. While doing this, the officers interact with the concerned persons and develop information. The PACE officers often receive phone calls directly from individuals reporting crime problems or the location of persons who have warrants for their arrest. PACE officers also stay in communication with detectives and help them develop leads on cases they are working. They also direct their efforts towards arresting habitual criminals.
The Department also uses a Crisis Intervention Team: Each shift is staffed with officers who have specialized training in mental health crisis intervention. These officers are assigned to respond to calls involving persons in a mental health crisis and render the most appropriate assistance. The officers are familiar with persons who require frequent interaction with the police and other public service agencies.
Our street officers are assigned to police beats, and although officers will be transferred around from time to time, for the most part, the same officer rides the same beat every day they work. These beats are based on population census tracts, as well as the volume of calls for service received in that area. Officers are expected to know their beats, know the crime problems, and understand who is living in their assigned area. The beat assignments give the officers a sense of responsibility for the area. Increasing the number of officers will allow our officers more time to perform community policing activities and develop relationships.
In the area of college hours, while it is good to have college we must be careful on how we approach this. To suddenly require 15 hours of college for all applicants would reduce our applicant pool by about 40%. This would make it more difficult to attract enough applicants for our academies. So, this effort must be phased in with increases in pay to attract sufficient applicants. Our records show that at the present time, 34.5% of our officers have a college degree, and an additional 35.4% have some college--most having 20 hours or more. Many of these officers continue to work toward their degrees. That means that 70.2% of our officers have a degree or some college education. I believe that having officers educated to speak, write, and communicate at a high level is very beneficial to the people we serve.
To have a Public Information Officer working 24 hours a day would take an additional 3 positions when considering that we would have to cover two additional shifts and figure in time off. This is not impossible to do; we just have to consider the costs of doing so. However, we have two officers designated as PIOs, and provide more news releases than many departments do for the news media and public. In addition to our PIOs, all of our field sergeants are trained and able to release information to the media and public at the scene of any incident or during their shift, any time of the day or night. We have always followed the Texas Public Information Act and very well understand the public's right and need to know what is going on when it comes to our community.
In reference to our department being 23 officers down, please note that it is not unusual for departments to work understaffed, especially recently. It has been recently reported that Lubbock is over 50 officers down and Austin is over 100 officers down. We are not unique in this area and our stats for those who have left are actually favorable, as we have had only two officers resign to go to another job. Recruiting is difficult for all police agencies everywhere."
Here are our stats:
Since December of 2014 we have had 25 officers leave the APD.
Here are the reasons for their departure:
Resigned in lieu of termination- 5
Resigned due to health issues- 2
Resigned due to family issues- 2