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Focus on raises, not buses, for police priorities

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Elizabeth City residents want their local police force to be effective and reliable at what they are entrusted to do, so insuring the department has adequate resources, training and good leadership should be a priority for taxpayers and city leaders.

During the past several years it has been. In fact, going back at least a decade, City Council and city staff have been responsive to police force needs, showing a willingness to purchase up-to-date equipment — everything from lasers, new handguns, vehicles and body cameras, to regular training and, of course, better accommodations. The department moved and expanded the police department's operational headquarters to Main Street.

Looking ahead, this next fiscal year's budget proposal includes 8 percent raises that should not only improve morale within the police department but also should help retain those experienced officers who are regularly wooed to other better-paying positions in other cities and counties.

Those are justifiable expenses which are easily tied to improving law enforcement effectiveness in the short and long terms. In recent weeks, however, we've seen a few items recommended under the guise of police needs that give us some hesitation, not only for their lack of justification to improve good police work in Elizabeth City, but also as a potential detriment to the credibility of priority funding requests asked of taxpayers.

Several weeks ago council unanimously approved buying — with help from a state grant program — two new electric motorcycles for the ECPD. We don't think the bikes are going to have any operational impact on the performance of local police work. In fact, as we pointed out in an earlier editorial, there are potential liabilities to buying the bikes, in addition to the extra costs to buy and then maintain them. But that didn't seem to deter the department or council from supporting the request.

Then in the last couple of weeks, another proposal, this one led by councilors Jeannie Young and Rickey King, has been broached to purchase a 23-year-old, mobile command center bus from the Camden County Sheriff's Department. Camden Sheriff Kevin Jones has even offered a bonus item to sweeten the deal if he can get Elizabeth City to take the bus off his hands: He'll throw in an old ambulance that he doesn't need.

The proposal includes buying the used bus for $80,000, and refitting the vehicle with updated equipment and technology, a new paint job and a covered carport to protect it from the elements. The initial city estimate for all that would cost the taxpayers $114,000, but we expect the expense to be higher — as it typically is when refurbishing an older vehicle that has been sitting idle for most of the last two decades.

And like the motorcycles, just how much use will the police department get out the vehicle? Very little, we think.

City officials admit the main use of the re-outfitted mobile command unit would be limited: Ceremonial events, such showing up at events like the N.C. Potato Festival; and being parked now and then in locations to give the perception of a police presence.

The city tried a similar strategy once before when it dropped a couple of satellite operation trailers into city neighborhoods. The objective then was the same — to create the perception of a police presence in or near crime areas. The units, however, got sporadic use, quickly fell out of favor with police officers and didn't result in any significant effect on crime.

The question for taxpayers — and for city leaders — is whether the bus should be a priority purchase for the ECPD. City Manager Rich Olson apparently doesn't think so, and neither do several councilors. Olson described the proposed mobile command center purchase as a "luxury" or a "want" rather than a "need." Councilors Johnnie Walton, Billy Caudle and Anita Hummer seemed to agree at last week’s council meeting, questioning the immediacy of the expense and suggesting more study. Call it delay and kill, but the right response nevertheless.

Wiser heads prevailed during last Monday's meeting, but the matter is not dead yet. Maybe it will help to point out that the more justifiable requests — competitive salaries, good benefits and leadership are what will help the most to ensure an effective department. Those objectives also are more likely to get the support of the taxpayers and their representatives on the council.

What will not get that support are pie-in-the-sky expenses that don't really add up to a larger benefit for police work or residents. In fact, those are far more likely to raise suspicions about the department's requests, which is the last thing it needs.

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