Ordinarily I avoid getting into debates with other local columnists. But last week's KWTN piece by George Maurer requires a response.
In his column, Mr. Maurer took aim at Key West Police Chief Buz Dillon's request for funds to put additional police officers on Key West's streets, suggesting that it would be a waste of money because the department is already overstaffed. Unfortunately, Mr. Maurer asked a lot of insinuating questions, but provided little hard information.
The one statistic that Mr. Maurer did cite is that Key West has 1.3 more police officers per 1,000 residents than the national average. But basing our community's policing requirements on the number of residents alone is absurd. What about the one and a half million visitors who come here each year? And think about how we get many of those visitors to come here in the first place by promising them that they can get publicly drunk, go wild and generally do things they would never think of doing at home. Because of the nature of our local economy, we obviously need a larger, better trained police force than other communities of our size.
Everybody agrees that public safety of both locals and tourists is something that cannot be compromised. But while Mr. Maurer wants the best from our police department, he is unwilling to provide the resources needed to achieve that excellence. And unfortunately, Mr. Maurer's views are shared by at least some city commissioners.
At a recent city commission meeting, the commissioners were discussing the hiring of new police officers and their goal of having a more visible police presence on the streets. They asked Chief Dillon how many officers would be required to achieve that goal, and he answered "twelve." The commission immediately dismissed the Chief's carefully considered answer. One commissioner actually tried to bargain the Chief down, position-by-position, as though she were haggling for a shawl in a third-world marketplace instead of making a fact-based decision about public safety.
That shameful exchange perfectly illustrates the city's short-sighted approach to investing in our local law enforcement officers. And it explains and why the KWPD suffers from such low morale and high turnover.
For years the city has had difficulty maintaining police department staffing, mainly because the pay rates we offer aren't competitive with those of other cities and because the cost of living here is so high.
New police officers come here and work just long enough to get a good resume together and then go to work in a more affordable community for more money. This constant loss of trained personnel compromises the effectiveness of our police force. And constantly training new personnel to replace them is expensive.
Our city leaders should wake up and realize that providing incentives for experienced officers to stay here in Key West is a wise long-term investment.
And there are other problems brought on by high turnover. Operating with a short staff makes it necessary for officers to work overtime, causing unnecessary expenses that would be eliminated with sufficient staffing. In addition, working overtime on a regular basis increases stress. Add that extra stress to the "normal" stress levels police are subjected to, and you're putting them at risk for physical and emotional burnout.
Part of the problem is that many people take the current professionalism of the KWPD for granted. But anyone who was in Key West in the 1970s and 1980s remembers what it was like when many people would hesitate to call for police assistance, because some of the police were themselves major criminals.
There are lots of ways the city can cut costs and do only minimal damage like buying cheap pens, inferior paperclips or low-quality copier paper. But our police department is no place to cut corners.