Pinched patrol?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2001

For years, the Albert Lea Police Department has been asking for more marked squad cars.

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

For years, the Albert Lea Police Department has been asking for more marked squad cars. The department routinely has officers patrol in pairs, which officers say is inefficient, but the city says the department has plenty of cars, and it would be a waste of money to pay for more.

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Depending on the shift and officer availability, three to eight patrol officers are on duty at a time, but the city only owns four marked patrol cars, said Assistant Police Chief Dwaine Winkels.

&uot;I think there would be a benefit to having one or two more marked units,&uot; said Albert Lea Police Chief Tom Menning.

The situation is not usually critical on days where three to four officers are typically on duty. But as many as eight officers can be on patrol between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., said Frank Cole, Patrol Officer and Head Steward for Teamsters Local 320. Then, doubling up is common.

&uot;In fact, they’ve tripled up in cars – had an officer jump in the back seat just to get to an area,&uot; Cole said.

On some occasions when squads were unavailable, officers have responded to calls in their personal cars – without lights, markings or safety equipment, Winkels said.

One day a week, the department performs service on the vehicles, leaving only three marked cars for the entire day shift.

&uot;And if you happen to have another one broken down because of an accident or significant breakdown then you’re down two,&uot; Winkels said.

After 10 p.m. officers can use two unmarked detectives cars or the school liaison officer’s car, Cole said. But ALPD policy frowns on transporting people in detective cars, which don’t have cages or light bars. When the detectives get their new sport utility vehicles soon, officers won’t be able to use them for routine patrol.

&uot;It is my understanding that patrol will only be able to use them for emergency situations,&uot; he said.

Problems with partners

The ALPD has the same number of officers on per shift since Winkels came to Albert Lea 16 years ago, but the call load has more than doubled in that time. Having two officers in the same squad car is inefficient, police said.

&uot;There’s a lot of report calls, like a stolen bike or a neighbor’s dog, and you’re sending two officers there because they’re paired up,&uot; Cole said. &uot;One could handle those calls easily.&uot;

That extra officer could be out taking other calls, which instead have to wait, he said.

&uot;We’ve had many times where there’s calls waiting because no one can get to it,&uot; Cole said. &uot;A lot of times it’s because two guys are handling something that would only take one officer to do.&uot;

To patrol special events, the ALPD puts officers on the street without cars. Last Sunday, when Albert Lea was teeming with events, officers patrolled on foot or by bike. One car was broken, two were handling calls, and one was patrolling the Festival of Bands parade, Cole said.

&uot;We had officers out at the parade that didn’t have vehicles at all,&uot; he said. &uot;If it hadn’t have been for the bike patrol, I don’t know what would have happened.&uot;

The department has had one broken vehicle for more than two weeks. They haven’t repaired it because they are getting replacement squads soon, but on Saturday, another car broke down as well, Cole said.

&uot;We had to take it into the garage and have it fixed right away because it left us with two squads,&uot; he said. &uot;It was a real crunch this last weekend.&uot;

Before advanced radio systems made backup a call away, officers patrolled in pairs for safety. Since then, several studies have shown that cops are actually safer in individual cars, Winkels said.

&uot;When you have a second officer, you’re more relaxed,&uot; he said. &uot;You tend to let your guard down.&uot;

Public-safety issues

So far, there is no evidence the area crime rate or public safety have been dramatically affected by the vehicle shortage, but it is difficult for the ALPD to cover large accidents, emergency situations or multiple 911 calls, officers said.

&uot;We’ve had some instances – like we had a gas leak last year where we had manpower but we didn’t have the vehicles,&uot; Winkels said.

Cars don’t patrol designated areas because they are too few. Officers routinely respond to calls across town, which can increase response time, Cole said.

&uot;Sometimes it makes a difference,&uot; he said.

Adding cars wouldn’t guarantee a reduction in crime, Winkels said. As it is, ALPD officers will get to scenes no matter what they have to drive.

&uot;If we get an emergency call for help, they’re going to get there however they can,&uot; he said. &uot;We have never not responded to a call.&uot;

&uot;If we had more marked units it would allow the Lieutenants more flexibility to assign officers,&uot; Menning said. &uot;I don’t know if it would make a difference in public safety.&uot;

There are some situations – like traffic accidents and high-speed response – where officers need the high visibility of a marked car, Cole said. But marked cars also just make the public feel safer, and take police more seriously.

&uot;If people see a squad car go through their neighborhood, they think we’re doing a good job and they’re glad to see us there,&uot; Cole said. &uot;A lot of times an unmarked squad will be there and they don’t even know it. It just makes them feel safer to see that marked squad car.&uot;

Other departments

The ALPD has 30 sworn officers, and 19 of them patrol, but they have fewer cars than many similar-sized departments in Minnesota.

The Oakdale Police Department’s 28 sworn officers have 11 marked squads at their disposal. In Anoka, 29 sworn officers use 7 marked squads, said Sergeant Keith Miller.

Only two to five officers patrol on any given shift in Anoka, but Miller said the extra vehicles are not unnecessary.

&uot;We have vehicle maintenance issues,&uot; he said. &uot;And there will be times when there are special projects.&uot;

Some officers were surprised by the small number of marked vehicles in Albert Lea.

&uot;What do they do, make them walk?&uot; asked Willmar Police Department Captain Tom Anderson. The Willmar Police Department, with 32 sworn officers serving the town’s 18,351 residents, has eight marked squad cars. In addition, they have fully equipped unmarked cars for extra patrol.

&uot;In my humble opinion, (the ALPD doesn’t) have enough cars,&uot; Anderson said. &uot;If it were my agency I would be squawking.&uot;

Anderson, who has been in law enforcement 31 years, feels doubling up his officers would have a significant impact on public safety in his community. The math is simple, he said.

&uot;If you have four cops and four cars they can be in four places at once,&uot; he said. &uot;If you have four cops in two cars, you can respond to two calls.&uot;

Most calls only require one officer, and it is more efficient to have them patrol singly, he said.

&uot;You have to strike a balance between what you’d like and what you can afford, but the bottom line is you have to have enough vehicle stock that you can reasonably expect to meet the expectations of the citizens for their service and protection,&uot; Anderson said.

Budget discussion

The ALPD administration has repeatedly asked the city to provide more marked cars over the years, but has been denied, officers said.

The ALPD has gotten more cars, but not marked squads, said Paul Sparks, Albert Lea City Manager. They are welcome to bring the issue up in budget discussions, but without an increase in patrolmen, Sparks said he felt more cars were unnecessary.

&uot;They haven’t increased staff,&uot; he said. &uot;There’s no use in having cars that don’t go anyplace.&uot;

Albert Lea Mayor Bob Haukoos said he has heard rumors about a shortage of patrol cars, but is prohibited by Albert Lea City Charter from talking with police administration about the issue.

&uot;By rights they would have to go through the city manager,&uot; Haukoos said. &uot;They really can’t talk to the mayor or the council.&uot;

According to the Albert Lea City Code, the city manager is solely responsible for the administration of city affairs, and elected officials must go through him to deal with administrative matters.

Haukoos doesn’t know if the issue has been discussed by previous city councils, but it hasn’t been brought up this term, he said.

&uot;I’ve heard rumors of it, that they need more cars because they are working two to a car and that’s not very efficient,&uot; Haukoos said. &uot;I think it’s good to have them in single cars.&uot;

Sparks declined to comment on the basis of his recommendations.

&uot;I make a recommendation to the council based on what I think is appropriate,&uot; he said. &uot;This is not something I’m going to discuss in the newspaper.&uot;