By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Overcrowded and outdated working conditions have caused a domino effect which left the Starkville Police understaffed and forced to make some very tough decisions, SPD Chief David Lindley said Thursday.
The department is housed in wing of City Hall, and the facilities are outdated and crowded for its approximately 55 officers and support staff, Lindley said. The police station has been housed in its current location since 1968 when the department only had a staff of 18 members.
“We have tripled in size over the years and we are in the same building,” Lindley said.
Space has become a huge issue for officers. The department made a number of sacrifices just to make room for all of its employees.
“We used to have a crime lab, but we had to absorb that space for office space for additional detectives,” Lindley said. “We used to have an interview room, which is a vital part of criminal investigations, and we lost that because we needed more office space. We need to expand into some areas, but we can’t because we don’t have any additional room to grow.”
The officers don’t even have a locker room to store their belongings anymore — that space is now used for evidence storage. There is only one bathroom in the whole station which is shared by everyone from officers to the recently detained. The city’s Animal Control unit is operated out of what used to be a closet. Even the chief’s office is multipurpose since there is no other space for conferences or staff meetings.
The officers aren’t the only ones affected by the lack of space — anyone who is part of a criminal investigation, whether a victim, suspect or eyewitness, is affected as well, Lindley said.
“We only have one room for taking reports and that room is often shared by someone that is a victim reporting a crime. At the same time, just five feet away, you might have someone under arrest being booked,” Lindley said. “We used to have a temporary detention holding room — we had to give that up for storage. Now the officer has to stay at all times with the prisoner.”
The building itself is in violation of a number of laws and codes. There is no area designated specifically for juveniles to be processed, which is required by state statute, so the patrol sergeant’s office is used instead. The building is not up to building or fire codes. The station is also in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the two-story building does not have an elevator.
Overcrowding isn’t the only problem the police department faces — the building itself is rapidly deteriorating.
“Most of the things that have been done to this building to expand into existing spaces have been done not up to code and done as inexpensively as possible. And of course, we’re reaping the benefits of that,” Lindley said. “It was all done in an attempt to be as frugal as we could be at the time. This building for a police department has outlived its ability to provide for us in a way that we have to have for a basic function.”
The electrical wiring for the building is out of date and often causes problems. During heavy rain, offices and evidence storage areas are subject to flooding. The roof leaks caused some major damage to ceilings throughout the building — there is mold and mildew in several areas.
And just a few months ago, the municipal complex experienced some plumbing issues that led to several inches of standing raw sewage covering the floors, a mess that took several days to clean up, Lindley said.
The state of the building is taking a toll on its officers, the police chief said.
“We have begun to see a pattern of turnover, an inability to be successful in retention of officers because they don’t feel like professionals in the facility that we currently operate out of. It’s hard to be motivated and remain positive in lieu of some of the challenges that we currently have, including basic things like adequate room and bathrooms,” Lindley said.
Low morale is one reason the department has lost seven officers in the last 90 days. For every officer the city loses, it also loses the time and money that went into training that officer, which is a major concern for Mayor Parker Wiseman.
“The condition of the current police facility poses a challenge to everything we do from a public safety standpoint. It makes it extremely difficult to recruit and retain police officers, and each time we lose a police officer that costs the city money,” Wiseman said. “Each officer we have has had thousands of dollars in training invested in them, and when an officer leaves the city, they take the training with them.”
Now, the force is understaffed and officers who traditionally work on a community-oriented beat have switched to patrol to cover the void. Important community programs, like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), were placed on hold until the vacancies are filled.
“We’ve also had to cut back on the number of narcotics officers, detectives and uniformed officers on the street. So, retention is a significant factor that could be at least partially remedied by a new facility. You want well trained and educated professionals, but it’s hard to feel like a professional, work like a professional if you don’t have a good environment to work in,” Lindley said.
Citizens will vote on the bond issue for the new municipal complex on Sept. 27. City officials have fought for a new station several times in the past to no avail.
“This will be the fourth attempt. Every time it fails it just affects our perception — mainly the officer’s perception — about how they’re supported by the community they serve,” Lindley said. “When you combine noncompetitive pay with our poor facilities, it’s hard to keep retention up. They feel under-supported and unappreciated by the community.”
Thus far, the issue has not been supported unanimously by the board of aldermen. It is a battle the police have been waging for over 10 years, but if the referendum fails yet again Lindley said it could be a very serious situation for the city’s public safety.
“We’re at a turning point in safety in our city. We’re at a crossroads, and if the referendum fails this time, it will have a direct negative impact on our ability to provide public safety to the community,” he said. “It’s up to our citizens to decide the direction they want their police department to take. We are at the point that if we don’t prevail this time, it’s going to have a significant impact on problems that already exist and make them worse.”
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said the police station’s overcrowding and lack of accessibility have become a big issue.
“They have officers in every square inch of available space in that office, and as a result, you don’t have space for things like storing evidence, which is extremely important,” Sistrunk said. “What I would want people to know is that it has gotten to the point where it is impacting performance and it is costing us money.”
Roy Ruby chaired a citizen-led committee which submitted a report to the board of alderman several months ago regarding a new municipal complex. After studying City Hall and the police department for months, the committee saw the need for a new police station.
“The physical facility in which the Starkville Police Department has to operate is absolutely deplorable,” Ruby said. “They can’t accommodate the number of officers they have, they don’t have adequate space for evidence and the facilities are out of date.”
The new police station would be over 26,000 square feet, compared to the approximate 8,000 in the current building. The plans for the new police complex can be viewed online at http://www.cityofstarkville.org/masterplan . The site also offers a feature allowing citizens to calculate how much their taxes would go up if the bond issue is passed. If voters pass the issue, construction on the police station would begin next summer.
“It’s not up to us. We’re going to do the best we can with what we have,” Lindley said. “It’s up to the public to give us direction on how they would like us to proceed from this point.”