Rock Hill police coping with staffing shortfall

Already saddled with the absence of a half-dozen officers deployed overseas, Rock Hill's police force was dealt another disappointment this spring when its request for six new hires was denied.

The department hoped the new positions would serve as reinforcements for a force charged with patrolling an ever-expanding city. Rock HiIl's population, now estimated at 62,000, is growing at a rate of 3.5 percent per year, city figures show.

"I wouldn't have asked for the six if we didn't need them," Police Chief John Gregory told The Herald last week. "But we're moving on. That's the way I'm looking at it."

Gregory planned to use the new hires to shrink the size of patrol zones across the city. That way, officers would be responsible for smaller geographic areas and could respond faster to calls and emergencies.

Under the current setup, an officer patrolling downtown near the police station also is responsible for calls near the Catawba River, some six miles away. An officer near the Museum of York County also responds to calls around West End Baptist Church as much as 7 1/2 miles away.

More time to consider options

City Manager Carey Smith elected to hold off on the hires -- they weren't funded in the 2007-2008 budget -- because he wants to give the department's new street crimes unit more time to get established.

The five-member unit was formed last summer to focus on hot-button crime issues around the city, such as drug dealing and car break-ins. It took until this year to be fully staffed.

Smith elaborated on his reasoning Friday, four days after the City Council backed his choice and gave initial approval to the budget with a 6-1 vote (the final vote comes June 25).

Councilman Kevin Sutton cast the lone dissenting vote after pressing Smith on why the new officers weren't included in the budget.

"This is not a decision being postponed simply because we don't think the officers are needed," Smith said Friday. "It has more to do with making sure the resources are used in the best possible way to reduce crime. That's our No. 1 goal."

The six officers would cost the city about $600,000, including salary, car and equipment.

Next year, Smith said, the choice will be whether to add officers to the street crimes unit or the general patrol force.

"The key is to take adequate time to be able to make that determination," Smith said. "By next year's budget, we'll have a much better sense of the direction we need to go."

For the past several months, the department has coped with staffing shortages. Six officers were deployed for military duty overseas, though one has since returned. Others left for new jobs, creating more vacancies.

The 66-man patrol force is now at 51, and some officers are working overtime to fill in the gaps. Gregory said he plans to fill many of those vacancies soon with candidates in training or at the police academy.

Crime-fighting successes

Despite the challenges with staffing, the department has achieved a number of successes in the past year.

• Since the Weed & Seed program began last April in five center-city neighborhoods, criminal charges have gone up 50 percent. Those charges range from one murder arrest to 132 drug-related arrests to 68 simple assaults. The program calls for stepped-up policing in neighborhoods where crime rates are among the highest in the city.

• In the year since the city began requiring bars and clubs to end alcohol sales at 2 a.m., calls for service to bars have dropped 63 percent, from 205 before the new law to 75 after it went into effect.

• And in the year since police stiffened fines, calls for false burglar alarms dropped 20 percent, thanks in large part to homeowners and businesses being more careful with their alarm systems.

The department has seen its budget increase from $6.9 million in the 2003-2004 budget to $8.6 million this year, with money spent on new in-car computers, radio systems, pistols and other equipment. Gregory has hired a full-time crime analyst who uses the Comstat software program to track crime trends.

The high-tech approach falls in line with a national trend, said Jeff Rojek, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina.

"What community policing was 10 or 15 years ago, Comstat is now," he said. "They're trying to target their resources more efficiently. It's bringing back accountability through new technology."

Gregory says he is optimistic that like these resources, he will get the six new officers in time.

"I didn't get the street crimes when I first asked for it," he said. "I didn't get the crime analyst right away. Those things took some time. That's a management decision, and I respect that."

ROCK HILL (pop. 62,000)

Staff: 165

Patrolling officers: 66 (Currently 51 due to vacancies and overseas military deployments)

Ratio: 940 residents for every patrolling officer

High Point, N.C. (pop. 95,000)

Staff: 218

Patrolling officers: 127

Ratio: 748 residents for every patrolling officer

ANDERSON (pop. 26,000)

Staff: 87

Patrolling officers: 52

Ratio: 500 residents for every patrolling officer

ORANGEBURG (pop. 14,500)

Staff: 76

Patrolling officers: 44

Ratio: 330 residents for every patrolling officer

-- Source: U.S. Census Bureau; city figures