Fremont Police Chief Jeff Elliott believes that, as Fremont’s population grows, there may be a need to assess the police department’s staffing.
“As the population increases, there’s going to be more need for police services,” he told the Tribune in a recent interview.
But first and foremost, the department is hoping to return to its staffing levels from 2010, as there are two and a half fewer officers working now than there were at that time, even though the number of incident reports has increased since then, Elliott said.
In 2010, the Fremont Police Department had 41 certified officers. But that year, the number dropped to 39 after two officers shifted to work full-time for the III Corps Drug Task Force, a drug investigation entity that’s funded by several regional law enforcement entities.
The shift was necessitated after a federal law enforcement grant called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which had been funding two positions with the III Corps Drug Task Force, expired.
“We still believed that III Corps was important so we had to take those positions from other parts of the department and put them in III Corps,” Elliott said.
In 2012, when Elliott took over the department, he believed that there was a need for a civilian evidence technician, and while the city agreed with him at the time, there was no funding available, he said.
He used one of his officer spots to hire the civilian tech, hoping that the police officer position would be refilled in the next budget year. But the tech remained, and the funding never became available. Then there were 38 officers.
The number actually dropped even further to 37 in 2016, after the city adopted, via a vote by the public, the LB840 economic development plan, which shifted more sales tax revenue to economic development.
In 2017, the City Council and the Mayor agreed to get that number up to 38.5 officers -- with the half representing a part-time officer. That’s the number the Fremont Police Department is at today.
“My goal, certainly, is to get back to where we were in 2010,” Elliott said. “It all boils down to money. We’ve gotta have the money to fund more police positions. Currently, we don't have the money to fund extra positions, so we make due with what we have for the moment.”
According to City Administrator Brian Newton, fire and police make up a large portion of the city’s budget, so adding personnel can create a “significant effect on the city’s budget,” and trying to make sure everything is adequately funded is a balancing act.
“As the budget would allow, we always want more public safety,” Newton said.
This summer, the city, which operates on two-year budgets, will begin putting together the budgets for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. At this point, sales and property taxes appear to be up, Newton said, which means that there could be additional funds come budget time. But the police department likely won’t be the only agency seeking money.
“Services have to keep up, whether it’s fire and police or parks and rec or street department -- there’s always a need,” Newton said.
Newton also agreed that future population growth could lead to a need for more services -- but he noted that the police department needs to develop metrics that can make a clear argument for its needs.
“No taxpayer wants to fund more than what is an appropriate amount,” Newton said. “He’s got to be the expert that says: ‘based on other populations our size, here’s the average, here’s what Fremont’s average is.”
Meanwhile, as the number of officers remains below 2010 levels, the number of incident reports filed by the department continues to rise. Incident reports are a better measure of an officer’s workload than service calls, Elliott said, because calls could describe a range of situations, and not all of them trigger an officer response.
“Incidents are where we go out and actually generate a report,” he said.
The earliest numbers that Elliott could access said the Fremont Police Department made 3,989 incident reports in 2012.
The department’s latest annual report, from 2017, has the number of incident reports up to 4,348. Data shows the numbers have been fairly stable since the department’s first annual report in 2014, when there were 4,390 incident reports.
“The guys are busier now than they were 10 years ago,” Elliott said. “They go from one call to the next call.”
That means they have less time for things outside of answering calls -- things like patrolling, executing traffic enforcement or public relations programs. In practice, it means they don’t always have resources to dedicate to traffic-based complaints, Elliott said.
However, adding additional officers to patrol could increase demand elsewhere, like in the department’s investigatory resources, he noted.
“When you increase patrol, then patrol generates reports and incidents that have to be further investigated,” Elliott said. “It’s these constant balancing acts.”
The shift of officers to III Corps back in 2010 is still deemed important, Elliott added. Even as justice reform initiatives across the country are considering changes to how non-violent drug-related crimes are enforced and prosecuted, Elliott says that drug crimes still present significant challenges and need the additional enforcement that III Corps provides.
“A lot of the drug crimes … contribute to other crimes, such as burglary, robbery, thefts that occur,” he said. “My job is not to write the law, my job is to enforce it,” he added.
Today, III Corps receives funding from its member agencies in Cuming County, Dodge County, Saunders County, Fremont, Blair, Wahoo and Yutan. There are three full-time agents assigned to work cases in a geographic area consisting of all of those areas, and agencies also send part-time help when available.
But all three of the full-time officers have originated from the Fremont Police Department, Elliott said. That includes one who works double duty, a member of both the Fremont Police Department and the III Corps Drug Task Force.
Ideally, III Corps would have five full-time officers, Elliott noted.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these other jurisdictions have gone through manpower situations similar to us and I need to point out that, losing people, we’re not unique,” he said.
Outside of staffing issues, the department is hoping for an upgrade to its facility -- an issue where progress seems likely with the recent reports that the city and Dodge County are in the early stages of creating a joint law enforcement center here in Fremont.
Additionally, the recent lockdown incident at Fremont High School highlighted to Elliott the need for a mobile command post that would allow them to set up shop down at the scene of emergencies.
The police department has a vehicle that was provided by the former emergency management office known as Region 5/6, but it’s in need of renovation.
“If we could renovate that vehicle and outfit it with communications equipment, that would meet our needs,” Elliott said. “We don’t currently have money budgeted for that, so that’s something that we would have to budget for in the future.”