As I write this, a named suspect wanted for attempted murder is on-the-lam in a city that doesn’t have any detectives to investigate its cases.
For so long this city had at its disposal a highly functioning police department. It was staffed by extremely motivated, efficient, well-trained, and committed police officers and communications personnel. Now they are leaving and not being replaced, causing dangerously low staffing levels, which has negatively impacted response times, employee morale, and contributed to the rise in crime.
With just 62 percent of what it had manpower-wise four years ago; the police department is overwhelmed, not to mention one of the lowest paid in the county.
Police Chief Lester Jenkins cannot be blamed for this crisis. He’s playing the hand he was dealt with a department of a mere 18 badge-carrying, gun-toting, sworn officers that was as high as 29 just a few years ago – and recommended to be 32 by his predecessor Marty West to adequately protect the city of 20,000.
The chief has to balance safe officer staffing levels for the financially strapped city that has cut his budget, frozen his open positions, and makes an issue of employee accumulated time.
News flash city officials: Employees can’t take time off if there’s no one to take their place.
Detective work is now being done part-time by stretching the use of retired officers as reserves when available to widen the capacity of the department. A more-than-tolerant police association concerned with the safety of its members in the field is even allowing the city to use a reserve officer to supplement patrol and be paid full-time but without benefits, bordering on an unfair labor practice.
Mayor Pat Paul recently said that public safety and restoring capacity of the police department must be one of Oakdale’s top priorities. I’m glad to hear her say that, but this statement confuses me because, while she has been working hard to keep a senior center open and bring back street sweeping, there has been no movement toward increased police staffing.
City Manager Bryan Whitemyer’s budget message said the city’s finances remain precarious. With employee costs continuing to rise, he has frozen hiring and urged the city council to be cautious with the limited funds available in ways that will not add to future deficits.
As politicians speak of the desire for additional officers, it is vital that they recognize how we got here. They cannot continue to ignore or deny how recent council decisions have caused this mess. They must stop trying to divert blame to the state, employee benefit packages, or union leadership, and accept their personal responsibility for this unnecessary calamity of their own creation.
Public safety must truly be the number one priority if city leaders are to keep the city from gang infestation and lawlessness. Other city programs or departments may have to suffer. That is the reality.
There now seem to be monthly shootings or stabbings, many gang-related. In the last six months there have been three homicides, countless gun and knife incidents, headline grabbing sexual assaults, and unsolved crimes that can’t be investigated.
The citizens of Oakdale deserve a well-running police department that will hunt down those wanted for attempted murder, not allow killers to remain free until time is available for the case to be worked to make the arrest and not need another agency to take over one of their homicide investigations.
In recent months, for Oakdale PD, unfortunately, that has not been the case.
The increased crime rate is no doubt the result of staffing shortages. Equally important, the fallout from these shortages has injected fear into city residents, many of whom feel unprotected and underserved by their dwindling police force.
With the escalation in crime and violence in Oakdale, we were anticipating hearing bold leadership, but instead we heard a whimper with no specifics and only hope for the best. Many of the proposals made by city leaders are about as clear as mud and will do nothing to retain valuable city workers performing critical services on the job.
Reducing crime is only possible with an adequately staffed and stable police department that has the manpower to prevent as well as investigate crime.
The opinion expressed is that of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Oakdale Leader.