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Poulsbo police chief makes case for more officers
POULSBO — Police Chief Alan Townsend waited patiently in the back of the City Council chambers Wednesday evening, as various city departments presented their budgets to the council. The number crunching made for a routine, uneventful meeting.
Then, the chief rose to speak.
“In 24 years of law enforcement I have never seen heroin use like I’m seeing now,” Townsend said. “It’s a huge problem. It’s not going to get better. A lot of the other crimes we are seeing are related to heroin.”
Most of the city departments presented few changes in their budgets. But unlike his colleagues, Townsend did want something, and it wouldn’t come cheap.
In a way, the city is already paying the price for it. Townsend walked to the front of the room with a large plastic container and set it before the council. “I have a box in the police station,” Townsend said pointing to the container, filled with syringes. Photos of more syringes, all recently collected by Poulsbo police officers, were shown on the chamber’s display screen.
“This is just a portion and it’s just from the ones dropped on the street,” he said. “They come from parks — our parks are very popular for heroin use — [and] they come from bus stops.” Townsend added, “It’s just matter of time until a child in a park will get stabbed by one of these.”
Townsend’s point: Poulsbo needs more officers to handle its law enforcement responsibilities. He asked the council to consider funding one more officer. The council took note of the chief’s point and agreed to bear it in mind as it continues to discuss the budget this month, before approving a final draft in December.
The chief pointed out that Poulsbo’s police force is smaller than it was in 2008, before a series of cuts and layoffs at the city to combat the ailing economy. Yet during this same time, the population of Poulsbo increased by 25 percent, and city officials expect more to come.
Currently, the police department has 13 officers, one detective, one deputy chief and the chief. A July staffing study by the department determined that approximately 80 percent of the area’s crime can be tied to drug use and that a total of 19 officers are needed to take on the job.
The nationwide average for a city with Poulsbo’s population, 10,000, is two officers for every 1,000 residents, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Mayor Becky Erickson chimed in with some harsh financial truth.
"Not only do we need one more cop, we need two more cops. I am aware of that,” she said. “Council, I don’t know how to fund it.”
Erickson presented her own budget earlier that evening. It included a suggestion for funding an additional police officer, but recommended waiting until spring 2014 to reevaluate finances with the hope of making it work.
“Come March, I hope we have better numbers, but I don’t know how to fund a new policeman,” Erickson said. “That’s where we are at.”
Erickson noted she and the chief have discussed reviving an old task force, once charged with tackling the area’s meth problem, which has waned in recent years. But once again, funding is the issue.
The problem extends further than mere illegal drug use.
“The people who are leaving these (syringes) behind are walking our streets,” Townsend said. “These heroin zombies, as I call them, they are the ones committing residential burglary and thefts.”
The chief noted that a drug habit costs money, and crime is a common means of funding one.
“Our detective has a case load so high we have taken our day sergeant to follow up,” Townsend said. “What happens is that the officer you wanted on 6th Street, there is nobody there, because he’s sitting in the station following up on a residential burglary from two weeks ago.”
Townsend stressed the need to get ahead of the problem, instead of chasing it.
“We cannot continue to be reactive to the problem, sending officers out to the burglaries after they happen,” Townsend said. “We are not being proactive because we don’t have the bodies to put toward it.”
He added, “Every other city has the same problem. If we are lucky, we can join up with a task force like Bremerton (Strategic Operations Group). Bad guys don’t know the borders. We got to partner up with other people.”
Townsend stressed that the matter is urgent and cannot wait longer. “If someone told you that you had a water main that was going to blow up tomorrow, you would go out and fix it before it blows up,” he said. “We are blowing up.”