Police officers work the scene of a shooting in the 1300 block of Fox Creek Drive Wednesday, January 3, 2018. A 13-year-old boy was hospitalized after the shooting. According to the Killeen Police Department, he was brought to a hospital with injuries that are not life threatening.

In September, the Killeen City Council approved a fiscal year 2018 budget that cut 20 sworn officer vacancies from the Killeen Police Department — leaving only 14 vacancies of that type on the books.

At the time, council members and residents were concerned that slicing away vacancies could hinder the department’s ability to hire and retain new officers to patrol the streets. Moreover, council members in this year’s budget discussions worried that more vacancy cuts could leave the department with little to no wiggle room for hiring.

But now the city has more vacancies than it budgeted for — and more problems remain.

Since August, the department has had 17 sworn officers leave the force, according to Assistant Chief Margaret Young. All but one of those have been resignations, she said.

In that same period, the department has brought seven new sworn officers online — a net loss of 10 officers. The department’s officer vacancies currently sit at 24.

There is now one sworn officer per 684 Killeen residents, according to most recent population estimates.

With more officers leaving than arriving, concerns over the department’s operational efficiency and future sustainability remain, particularly among officers on the force.

Bobby Castillo, president of the Killeen Police Employees Association, said declining officer numbers are creating a less effective police force.

“In any agency, if there are not enough officers to respond to the calls for service in a timely manner then the effectiveness will decline,” Castillo said in an email. “Killeen is not immune to this.”

Operations affected?

While the number of sworn officers has decreased in the past 10 months, Young said the department has remained “on mission” and continues to commit adequate officers to patrol.

“The loss of sworn officers can get to a level of affecting operations as well as the budget,” Young said in an email. “The department will always consider the safety of the community first and the patrol division is the backbone of that mission.”

Of the department’s 236 filled officer positions, Young said 159 were patrol officers. Of the 17 departures, Young did not have an exact number but said most were from patrol ranks.

The department’s focus on shoring up patrol could be a driver of the department’s success in preventing violent crime in recent months.

Violent crime incidents in Killeen were down 36 percent from December to February in comparison to the same period in 2016-2017, according to statistics from the department. Violent crimes include murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery. Nonviolent crimes the department highlighted in its presentation were burglaries, auto theft and larceny.

The reported drop in violent crime has roughly corresponded with the hiring of Police Chief Charles “Chuck” Kimble, a former police chief in Spring Lake, North Carolina, in late September.

At the time of Kimble’s hiring, the city was in the middle of its deadliest year in at least 22 years with 22 reported homicides — 18 of which were being investigated as murders.

Since the turn of the new year, the city has reported three criminal homicides including one Saturday.

Part of that solution, according to police, has been joint ventures with state and federal law enforcement.

In December, the city of Killeen announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs to create a crime reduction strategy by examining the city’s crime environment, evaluating response methods and developing proactive approaches to achieve results. The study is ongoing.

Employee response

Despite top staff’s belief the department’s core mission is being met, Castillo said the declining numbers of officers was driven by apathy for public safety at City Hall and the increasing danger of working the beat.

“Anytime a police force is reduced, while the work load remains or increases, the officers remaining will be tasked with carrying that extra load,” Castillo said. “Naturally this will negatively affect morale. When morale has been negatively affected, it is simply a matter of time before most people will exit their current situation and find a better one.”

In Castillo’s telling, Killeen’s budget constraints in recent years created a difficult situation for officers who are facing more challenges on patrol and in investigations.

“The job of a law enforcement officer has increasingly become more difficult over the past several years,” Castillo said. “If governing bodies do not make public safety a priority, then pay and benefits are not increased and made competitive.”

As officer numbers declined, Castillo said support staff — or noncivil service positions — were becoming increasingly important.

“The support staff of the Killeen Police Department do a wonderful job of taking care of the important issues that does not necessarily require a sworn officer to handle,” he said.

As officers have declined, support staff hiring has actually been on the rise, Young said.

Young said the department had hired 26 support staff since August, compared to 17 departures. The department currently has 28 vacancies for noncivil staff and a total workforce of 70.

Lagging pay

According to the employee association, a lack of competitive pay for Killeen public safety employees is a significant factor in the department’s inability to hire and retain officers.

“Pay and benefits must be competitive for any market, but we feel this is more importantly so within the Public Safety Community,” Castillo said. “If you want to attract and retain a qualified candidate to come to work each day and demand they place their lives on the line, there must be competitive pay and benefits.”

According to preliminary figures from the city in January, civil service employees — including police and fire — are paid about 7.5 percent below market average for cities comparable in size and demographics to Killeen. Those figures show noncivil service employees make 13.29 percent below comparable market average.

Young agreed a lack of competitive pay in Killeen could be making it more difficult to hire and retain officers who are looking for higher pay and more benefits. However, Young said, hiring was based on a number of factors separate from pay.

“Pay is certainly a factor when an organization is competing with other organizations,” Young said. “This can be more impactful when several agencies are conducting a recruiting/hiring drive at the same time. Other considerations for applicants are benefits, schedules (shift configurations), training, equipment, etc.”

In January, Killeen City Manager Ron Olson recommended a review and reworking of the city’s employee compensation plan, saying it was “out of whack.”

“In order to fix the issue, we’ve got to do this different than we’ve ever done it,” Olson told the council.

Killeen Director of Communications Hilary Shine said the city is using a compensation study completed in 2014 to compare to current salaries and market trends.

“There is no formal study,” Shine said. “We are comparing current pay structure from the previous study with the (comparable) market.”

Budget concerns

With sworn vacancies creeping back up, concern remains that vacancies — and possibly filled positions — could be on the chopping block.

In September, 20 vacant commissioned officer positions, three vacant noncommissioned positions and two vacant animal services positions were eliminated from the department’s budget.

At the time, Young, the interim police chief, said the cuts could have a “slowing impact” on criminal investigation as the department underwent a reorganization to allocate more resources to patrol.

Castillo said officer commitment to the job remained high despite a morale hit and the possibility of future cuts.

“I know all (officers) have had to deal with these issues and although morale has been affected, their level of commitment to keeping this city safe is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Castillo said. “As the association president, I have no doubt (staffing cuts) weighs heavily on (officers’) minds.”

With few vacancies left to cut, the department could be forced to eliminate filled positions in the coming budget — particularly as federal grant money to help support police personnel is phased out of the budget over the next two fiscal years.

According to city projections, the amount of intergovermental revenue into the general fund as a whole is expected to drop from $3,965,295 to $2,112,806, a more than $1.8 million cut, in fiscal year 2019 — mostly tied to the expiration of a 2015 COPS grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

That grant, which funded 13 new officer positions, created an issue for the city due to the lack of a long-term, stable funding source when the grant expired. Those 13 positions, some of which are vacant, are funded in this year’s budget.

Olson has previously said the city would limit its reliance on federal grants without first identifying a long-term funding source for personnel or other continuing expenses paid for by a grant.

The city also annually funds an 8 percent “step” increase for civil service employees that met some council resistance in 2014. That summer, the council voted to raise the annual increase for retained employees from 5 percent to 8 percent, raising concerns that the city couldn’t cover the cost.

Those two short-term decisions came under fire in summer 2016, when the council faced an $8 million projected shortfall in June. The revenue gap was so dire, the council considered canceling the 8 percent raise before the city found a way to cover the expense.

Castillo said as council members continued discussions on the coming annual budget, public safety pay and staffing should remain a top priority.

“Most educational media records that the creation of a government almost certainly originated from the need to protect its people,” Castillo said. “This should be the top priority.” | 254-501-7567

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