The Indianapolis Star * June 12, 2005


Years of inadequate funding threaten the publicís safety

Thin blue line: Indianapolis police rest along Troy Street following a shootout that cost one officer his life. Combining IPD and the Sheriff's Department could improve police coverage throughout the county. (Mpozi Mshale Tolbert / The Star)

Our position is: Serious discussion on revamping public safety in Marion County is overdue.

Deputy Mayor Steve Campbell thinks "there is a lot more savings to be found" in Mayor Bart Peterson's plan to merge the Indianapolis Police Department with the Marion County Sheriff's Department than the $9 million estimated so far.

Fraternal Order of Police President Vince Huber, however, proclaims the plan isn't "effective, efficient and doesn't produce the savings expected."

Expect plenty more wrangling this summer over the remnants of Peterson's original Indianapolis Works plan. Ultimately, it must be the starting point for a much-needed conversation on fixing Marion County's woeful criminal justice system.

As pointed out by Brookings Institution senior policy analyst Mark Muro, merging the two police departments can wring out savings and improve police coverage throughout the county. But it won't be a silver bullet for overworked judges, undermanned police staffs and an inadequate county jail.

IPD funds dwindle

A glance at city Controller Bob Clifford's PowerPoint presentation to the City-County Council panel on consolidation gives a sense of the problems facing Indianapolis in funding its police department.

Even with proceeds from a $100 million pension obligation bond, just $340,000 will be left in the police pension fund to cover expenses by 2009. That won't be enough to cover the $8 million difference between what the fund generates and its expenses.

The pension problems in turn will force the city to borrow from its "fund balance," or emergency cash, which will soon be tapped out. The fund will be $13 million in the hole by the end of next year; it will have just $1 million in cash by the end of this year.

The dwindling cash, along with Mayor Peterson's austerity mandate, has forced new Police Chief Michael Spears to scour for efficiencies. A restructuring left seven high-ranking positions vacant; more top-ranking officials may be demoted to save money. Remaining supervisors are closely monitoring overtime.

More efficiencies could be wrung out if IPD and the Sheriff's Department combined investigative units such as sex crimes or shared training centers.

Yet the pension problems -- a legacy of chronic neglect by city officials -- remain. Some $53 million in benefits will be paid out by the pension fund in 2007 alone, including $8 million in one-time lump-sum payments to 77 retiring officers.

This is one price city government -- and taxpayers -- are paying for not giving public safety close attention.

Challenge for sheriff

As sheriff's legal counsel Kevin Charles Murray rattles off statistics, the daunting challenge faced by the Marion County Sheriff's Department in policing its 287 square miles becomes evident.

The ranks have been reduced by 23 deputies since 1990 even as the population has doubled. Each of the department's 410 deputies cruising the streets responds on average to 667 runs a year. In contrast, each of their 1,232 colleagues in the Indianapolis Police Department is dispatched on only 199 runs.

So community-oriented crime fighting isn't possible, which, according to Murray, means the department is "more reactive than proactive." The gap in public safety is widening just as property-related crimes, the very felonies community policing can avert, are rising. Larceny and theft alone rose 14 percent in 2003.

Then there's the budget -- or what's left of it. Just "a couple hundred thousand" remain in this year's supply budget, according to Maj. Ron Chappell, because the sheriff had to repay the city for filling its cars with gasoline. Another $2.5 million in fuel costs -- and counting -- remains outstanding.

A $3 million payment the sheriff was supposed to get from the county to pay for health care costs at the jail would help, as would another $155,000 for rent on the jail itself. But the City-County Council delayed those payments until 2006 -- if they're ever paid at all.

Such is the pattern of penny-pinching that has typified Marion County government's approach toward its most important role. Anderson's request for 250 additional deputies was rebuffed during the last two budget sessions. That number is actually lower than the 965 additional officers the Sheriff's Department estimates it needs for adequate policing.

Consolidating the Sheriff's Department with IPD would yield efficiencies. But the need for investing more in public safety will remain.

Courthouse security

The specter of a 1975 courtroom shooting in Indianapolis should have prompted better security for Marion County Superior Courts. Yet only 44 deputies are deployed to watch over 34 courtrooms inside the City-County Building.

Well, not every courtroom.

Murray, the Sheriff's Department legal counsel, notes that "we don't even have the luxury of having deputies over at the civil side." So a fractious divorce case could get out of hand before an unarmed bailiff calls for help.

There is not enough personnel to maintain security at the Marion County Jail and oversee the 66,000 inmates handled there each year. As for the jail itself, overcrowding improved only after U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued an order capping the number of inmates at 1,135.

Yet to prevent overcrowding, the Superior Court releases alleged criminals it deems the best of the worst. In doing so, judges must rely on incomplete data.

The consequences can be tragic. Lamar Blount, for instance, was released after an arrest for violating parole and later was accused of murdering John Williams.

City and county governments have dropped the ball on preserving law and order, their most important duty to their taxpayers.

A move by the City-County Council earlier this year to raise the county-option income tax to better meet safety needs will help. So would either a full or partial consolidation of IPD and the Sheriff's Department.

Those moves, however, are first steps. Local governments have for too long neglected adequately paying for public safety. It's time for an honest discussion of the community's needs.