Across U.S., police struggle with staffing

By Jeremy Kohler
The St. Louis Dispatch
Related: Slain St. Louis officer was alone because of lack of manpower

LOS ANGELES A car swerved to avoid passing an oncoming police car. A pair of Los Angeles police officers made a U-turn and caught up.

Three people inside, jewel thieves armed to the teeth, gave up meekly.

No one got hurt that night in 1982. A jailhouse argument, which police recorded, revealed that the thieves had planned to shoot their way out of trouble.

But when they saw a second officer, they changed their minds.

"One said to the other, 'We would have gotten killed,'" said David Klinger, one of the LA officers. He is now a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The episode helped shape Klinger's opinion about police patrols, one held by most in law enforcement: When facing the unknown, two cops are safer than one.

St. Louis Officer Norvelle Brown was alone when he was fatally shot Wednesday night near Sherman Park. He had turned his squad car into an alley and got out, presumably to check something that wasn't right. He didn't call for backup.

Investigators don't know exactly what led to the shooting. Brown should have called for assistance if he were leaving his car to approach people, according to department protocol.

"In a perfect world, you get on radio and tell dispatcher where you are and that you are stopping people," said Kevin Ahlbrand, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. "But sometimes you don't have time to do that."

Shrinking budgets

Though no one keeps statistics, experts believe that more cities have moved toward manning patrol cars with one officer, often in response to shrinking manpower and budgets. In St. Louis, the police force has been cut nearly 40 percent since 1970. While dual patrols were once the rule, four out of five squad cars have lone officers, according to the department.

After Brown's slaying, St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa said he wished the department had enough cash to double up officers. Ahlbrand said the city needs more two-person patrols but can't afford fewer cars on the street, a math problem with only one solution more cops.

That's not likely to happen.

Mayor Francis Slay, a member of the St. Louis Police Board, said Friday that having two officers to a patrol car is not necessarily the best use of resources - or a guarantee against officer deaths.

Slay noted that the last city police officer to be killed on duty, Nicholas Sloan, was with his partner when he was shot in 2004. Slay also said Mokwa has assured him the city has enough officers to fight crime.

The force has been trimmed from a peak of 2,200 officers in 1970 to about 1,400 today. Even with reduced staffing, it still has four officers per 1,000 residents, one of the nation's highest staffing rates.

Richard Wilkes, a St. Louis police spokesman, said officers never go into dangerous assignments alone. Typically, multiple cars are dispatched to incidents.

Cities experiment

Some cities with one-person patrols have experimented with two-person patrols, only to go back to lone patrols.

Phoenix police tried two-man patrols in 1999 after the shooting death of an officer, then reverted to one-person patrols.

The widow of George Cortez, a Phoenix police officer slain last month, said her husband would be alive if he had a partner. Now the police department says it will deploy more two-man patrols if the public supports a tax increase on the ballot in September.

In nearby Mesa, Ariz., the police paired officers on the graveyard shift in two of its four districts for a 90-day trial period. Leaders believed the officers would be safer and wanted to test how the patrols affect crime fighting.

But on a given night, there were only four squad cars per district instead of eight, said Detective Chris Arvayo, a Mesa police spokesman. If one car stopped a drunken driver, it would leave only three cars for the rest of the district a force too small to reduce crime, so the experiment was ended, Arvayo said.

"We weren't getting it done because of manpower."

Safety in numbers

Some data suggest that officers with partners are safer than those who must go it alone.

By far, the highest numbers of assaults on officers are among those who are alone, either in a squad car or on foot patrol, according to a March 2006 report by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.

From 1983 through 1994, half the officers killed were on one-officer vehicle patrol, compared with 12 percent on two-officer vehicle patrol, according to a study by Lorie A. Fridell, an associate professor at Florida State University, and Antony Pate, a senior research associate.

In an interview Friday, Fridell said that the numbers might simply reflect a higher percentage of officers on lone patrol and not necessarily an elevated risk to them.

A study of the 56 largest U.S. cities by Fridell and Pate found that agencies with higher percentages of one-officer vehicle assignments had higher rates of felonious killings, controlling for other variables. But the authors warned that their data relied on surveys from a small sample.

Stretching resources

Klinger, of UMSL, said police departments may be overestimating the advantage to having more one-car patrols cars on the street.

He suggested reserving one-officer cars for handling reports of crimes that don't need urgent attention, and where there isn't an obvious threat. Two-officer patrols eliminates the need for a single officer to have to wait for backup, he added.

"Police procedure dictates that if you show up and there is a problem afoot ... you are obliged to wait until a second officer shows up before you do anything," Klinger said.

"From a citizen's perspective, the amount of increased safety is nil, because the city has to wait for two officers to show up."

Copyright 2007 The St. Louis Dispatch

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