Akron police are in the midst of a major reorganization as the department tries to protect and serve with 20 percent fewer officers.
Police Chief James Nice has been meeting with department brass, Mayor Don Plusquellic and city attorneys as he crafts a reorganization plan to cope with a force depleted by attrition.
He also intends to meet this month with frustrated police union officials, who have already contacted their attorneys to ensure that any changes in structure do not violate their contract.
Entering this new year, the force stood at 404 sworn officers, 19 of whom are permanently assigned to Akron schools. Just a decade ago, the department had 500 officers.
Nice would not go into specifics about his plans, which he described as fluid. He did say, however, that 90 percent of officers would not be affected by the change. A plan is expected by March 1.
Most vulnerable in any reorganization are the department’s speciality units, such as gangs, community relations and traffic. Some units are operating with two or three officers and a lieutenant.
“The only thing I’m trying to do is … what’s the most efficient thing to do with 404 officers,” Nice said. “If you have 20 percent less officers, 20 percent less work is being done.”
Union attorney sends letter
Union leaders have already voiced their angst over the revamping, even though no plan has been formalized. A union attorney sent a letter to the city’s labor relations chief on Jan. 13 over rumors of “a number of problems” with the reorganization.
Union attorney Susan Muskovitz said Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which represents the entire department except the chief, reported officers are concerned over potential changes to schedules and duty assignments, the shifting or merging of specialized units and the removal of some positions from union protection.
“It is the hope of the FOP that these rumors are untrue,” Muskovitz wrote.
The attorney reminded the city of the collective bargaining agreement and cautioned the city against changes that could violate the agreement. The union is “ready, willing and able” to discuss any changes, she said.
Nice said he intends to meet with union chief Paul Hlynsky once his reorganization is finalized.
“What we don’t address [in the reorganization] is going to be the things that are least important to the safety of the citizens,’’ he said. “I don’t want to violate the union contract. I do want to meet with the union — it’s their officers and it’s their city — and say, ‘Here’s what I’m trying to do.’
“There’s no ulterior motive. Could someone end up with a worse shift? There will be probably a handful of people. Will someone end up with a better shift? Probably. But it’s not going to affect 90 percent of the officers.”
Nice said the move is necessary to make better use of resources. And while 25 new officers are expected to be added by September, a yet-unknown number will leave for retirement or other reasons.
A smaller force is a reality, he said. And changes are needed to spread the staffing.
For example, Hylnsky said — and Nice acknowledged — that detectives are inundated with robberies, burglaries and sex crimes and many in the bureau have 50 to 70 cases each.
That leaves little time for officers to investigate.
“New cases come in every day. And this is not CSI where you get one case and it’s solved in an hour,” Hlynsky said.
In addition, Hlynsky said, with a smaller force have come fewer cars on the streets patrolling neighborhoods.
Last summer, a review of records by the Beacon Journal showed Akron officers were writing 90 percent fewer speeding tickets than in 1989. The department’s traffic bureau, decimated by job losses and now staffed by fewer than a dozen officers, no longer runs radar and officers write merely four speeding tickets on a typical day.
“All we do is respond to calls,” Hlynsky said. “There’s no patrolling going on. We don’t have the assets to do patrols. That’s the big thing: No one’s patrolling the city of Akron to prevent crimes.”
At his office in police headquarters, Hlynsky jotted on paper the dwindling staff numbers over the past decade. He recalled a force of more than 530 in the 1960s and 500 officers just 10 years ago. He reiterated how the city promised residents in 1991 that a vote on Issue 8 would shift money specifically toward safety workers.
Times have changed and the city says that with a shrinking tax base and fewer state dollars, it can no longer fund a 500-?officer department.
Plusquellic has resisted supporting a safety-forces-only tax hike.
So nowadays, Hlynsky said, officer morale and citizens suffer from the shrinking numbers while criminals benefit. He said there have been days this year when the city has been patrolled by one car in each of its four sectors.
“There’s no officer presence out there and the criminals know it,” he said. “It’s an ongoing thing. Our officers tell me all the time that they’re not safe out there because they don’t have proper backup. Things have deteriorated to the point that it is ridiculous.”
Changes still fluid
Nice would not say which units are being targeted by the reorganization, but he said it is possible some will be eliminated. Some are one-third their former size.
“It’s under consideration,” he said. “[But] I don’t want to talk about any of them because I don’t think it’s fair for somebody to read it in the paper. But there is consideration of some possibly being disbanded or possibly consolidated or merged. Some are just too understaffed to be independent organizations.
“But it’s not done. That’s the thing, or I would go to the troops, and I would hand it to Paul [Hlynsky]. It literally evolves as I learn things and you put things on the table.”
Nice said he is relying on high-ranking officers to help craft the plan. They are crunching statistics, he said, and doing “massive data research” in the process to plug the holes with the available staffing. For example, he said, the department is researching technological changes in the detective bureau that would free detectives to do more investigating and less administrative work.
In the meantime, Nice said he is trying to quell the uncertainty and anxiety circulating the department.
“People hear all kinds of rumors. And that’s what I don’t want is to send rumors out and create chaos with men and women that get up every day and do a good job for the police department and then go home all upset and find that [rumor] wasn’t even true,” Nice said.
“I hate for people to lose sleep on a rumor.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.