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Want us to respond quicker? Give us 50 more cops, union tells Fla. city

Others suggested that too many specialized units have taken away from patrol

Fort Lauderdale Police Department

Fort Lauderdale Police Department

By Susannah Bryan
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Where’s a cop when you need one?

In Fort Lauderdale, patrol officers are busy answering 200,000 calls a year. If the city beefed up staffing with an extra 50 cops, they might get there faster, union leaders say.

Those new cops would not come free.

Boosting the ranks by 50 officers would cost an estimated $6.5 million in the first year alone — or $130,000 per hire, Union President Brandon Diaz says.

Just how many more officers Fort Lauderdale needs is up for debate.

Police Chief Larry Scirotto, who took the reins in mid-August, says he’s still evaluating staffing levels.

City Manager Chris Lagerbloom says there’s no need to hire 50 more officers on top of the 530 positions already allocated in the department’s $140 million budget.

But the union president — bolstered by the commission’s recent approval of an 11th hour request to hire 16 additional firefighters — argues Fort Lauderdale needs those extra cops to serve a fast-growing population.

The agency currently has 24 vacancies and is expecting that number to grow as more officers retire by the end of the year, Diaz says.

Some say there might be another solution.

Robert Borowski, a sergeant who retired this year after a 26-year career with the department, suggested pulling 20 officers out of specialized units and putting them on road patrol.

“Are we short-staffed because we created too many specialized units?” Borowski said. “I’d say the answer is yes. We have a lot of specialized teams that take away from the patrol units. Your patrol officers are the first line of defense.”

A common gripe

The way things stand now, only 197 officers, or 37% of the sworn officers, are assigned to road patrol, Diaz said. Command staff, detectives and officers assigned to specialized units make up the rest of the department.

Officers responding to shootings, home invasions and other high-priority emergency calls take an average of four minutes and 18 seconds to arrive on the scene, Diaz says. But noise complaints, fender benders and other low-priority non-emergency calls have a much longer response time, averaging around nine minutes, Diaz says.

Some residents have complained it takes even longer than that for officers to respond.

In a perfect world, residents wouldn’t have to wait so long for a cop to get there if the city hired more officers, Diaz says.

The short-staffing claim is a common gripe among police agencies nationwide, says Alex Piquero, a University of Miami professor and criminology expert.

There’s no national standard regarding the number of officers a city should have per capita, Piquero says. The ratio varies wildly from place to place depending on population, crime rate, call volume and even budget — how many officers the city can afford.

“It’s really hard to figure out how many officers a department needs,” Piquero said. “It’s kind of a black box. It depends on how many officers you have and what they’re doing.”

But in this case, Piquero says, those calling on Fort Lauderdale to hire more patrol cops may have a point because of the rise in population.

Tourists and new residents aren’t the only ones boosting those numbers. Think of the thousands of commuters from surrounding cities who head to Fort Lauderdale for work.

“Fort Lauderdale is ... a lot like Miami,” Piquero said. “You have a lot of people moving here. And then you have the influx of tourists and vacationers. So you do need more officers on the street as well as firefighters.”

‘Immediate outrage’

During Fort Lauderdale budget hearings in mid-September, police were taken aback to see Commissioner Robert McKinzie order the city manager to find $2 million a year to hire an extra 16 firefighters to cut back on overtime.

“It was immediate outrage as soon as they found out fire got more bodies when our staffing is just as bad,” Diaz said.

In a letter to the commission, Diaz blasted the last-minute approval of the extra hires, calling it a “slap in the face” to police dealing with the same staffing woes and overtime pressures.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department spent $1.5 million on mandated overtime last year, Diaz said. That’s when officers are told they cannot go home and are forced work overtime shifts, which can lead to fatigue and other health issues, Diaz says.

In his letter, he argued the city has undergone unprecedented growth but staffing has not increased to compensate for the increased demand.

“The ugly truth for our men and women in blue is that they have been doing more with less and the demands placed on them continue to grow year after year,” he wrote.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis says he sympathizes with those calling for more officers.

“For a city of this size and the population we service, we are still short of the police officers we need,” he said.

But to hire more officers, you have to find a way to pay for them. And city officials tend to raise the tax rate when they need money for additional hires — a move that’s not exactly popular with residents.

“I don’t have the answer to that yet,” Trantalis said when asked whether the city might hike its tax rate, one of the lowest in Broward County.

“As it now stands, we are still not caught up with the vacancies we already suffer,” he said. “So we really need to focus on that before we consider hiring new personnel.”

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