Safety first even on a budget

Friday, November 2, 2001

When Cape Girardeau police officers responded to a near riot in 1999, their equipment was outclassed by smaller police agencies on the scene. Officers claim that at least one patrolman's injuries could have been prevented had he been wearing riot gear when he was hit in the head with a brick.

That's one of the concerns highlighted in a comprehensive study performed by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum.

Nearly two months after being promoted to Cape Girardeau police chief, Steve Strong surrounds himself with reminders of things he still hopes to accomplish.

He inherited a department in turmoil with a high turnover rate and a perceived problem with morale. The so-called PERF report put much of the morale problem at the feet of management.

But the report also said there were some clear safety questions.

"Officer safety and equipment issues and morale are in many ways interrelated," states the final report, issued about the time Strong officially took over in early September after having served as interim chief since June.

The major problem -- poor radio reception -- is one that has plagued officers for years. Pegged as unreliable with dangerous "dead spots," repairs to the radio system were completed, Strong said. "But before I say we're at 100 percent on our radios, I'd like to go a full week with no problems," he said.

The man in charge of equipment, Lt. John R. Davis, auxiliary services supervisor, said four receivers have been positioned throughout the city to eliminate dead spots, and most of the interference from multiple sources has been filtered out.

Dead spots are areas in which officers cannot reach or hear dispatchers by radio.

Being creative

Last year's budget was $4,785,930. Cupping his hands together, he said: "This is how much I get. When it's gone, it's gone."

He said budget constraints force him to be frugal, seeking out the best equipment at the best price.

Using the PERF report as a guideline, Strong said the department has been doing whatever has been financially possible to improve equipment, then "getting creative" when the money runs out.

Budget restraints are evident everywhere. Every nook and cranny of the police station is being used, with some offices actually crammed into closets and storage rooms.

Strong's office doubles as a meeting room, and if he isn't involved in the meeting he finds another desk at which to work.

One example of creativity is a new storage unit outside the police department that houses found property like bicycles. The unit used to be a large trash container. Off-duty officers and prisoners on work release cleaned it and painted it.

Getting input

With communication problems between administrative and patrol officers cited in the report, Strong makes sure patrolmen are in on decisions on how to spend money for equipment when extra funds do turn up.

When money was recently donated by a Cape Girardeau businessman and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3838, the uniform and equipment team, a group of patrolmen, were told how much money was available and asked "What do you want the most?" Strong said.

The result was a supply of shotguns specifically designed to shoot non-lethal rounds of bean-bags, said patrol commander, Lt. Roger Fields.

The 1999 near-riot incident on Good Hope Street resulted in an officer being injured after being struck by a brick. According to the PERF study, officers said afterward that had they been equipped with helmets and face shields the patrolman never would have been hurt.

Currently, the department has five riot shields and is spending $5,000 on more shields and shin guards. The city is also upgrading existing equipment like helmets issued in the early 1970s. Those are being equipped with new face shields.

And the Special Response Team is being outfitted with heavy duty vests that cost about $1,500 each.

The department actually had some riot shields and helmets that probably would have helped in the 1999 melee, Fields said, but because they hadn't been used since the Vietnam protest era, most officers didn't even know about them.

Today, Strong keeps a riot shield next to his desk.

"That shield sits there telling me that there's a problem I still have to address," he said.

abuchanan@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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