OKC police staffing is near crisis, union leader says

“We’re just short of what I and several of us who have been involved in this would classify as a crisis,” said Mark Nelson, vice president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123.

Nelson appeared on a panel at a luncheon event sponsored by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the city’s leading business organization, to discuss the Sept. 12 bond and sales tax election.

Voters will decide whether to approve 13 bond propositions, extend the 1-cent MAPS sales tax for streets, and enact a quarter-cent sales tax increase for public safety.

The public safety sales tax increase is to go toward hiring more police officers and firefighters.

City leaders expect it to raise about $26 million per year for an additional 129 police officers and 42 firefighters.

The addition of 129 police officers would get the department about halfway to the 1,311 recommended in the chief’s latest staffing study update.

Nelson said the current average police response time is 8 minutes and 15 seconds to a Priority 1 call.

“That’s when you’re at home and your front door is being kicked in,” he said. “Or you’re out with your friends or your family or your spouse and your child calls you and says they think someone’s in the backyard.”

Two of the 13 bond propositions on the Sept. 12 ballot would add to public safety investments, raising about $76 million, primarily to build a new joint police and fire training center.

Three new fire stations also would be built in the next 10 years to replace aging facilities.

The total over the next decade could amount to a $325 million boost to public safety spending.

Mayor Mick Cornett highlighted the department’s commitment to community policing and de-escalating potentially violent situations, noting the commitment increases staffing expectations.

“We really believe that it is better for us to be building relationships inside the community with our police officers and establishing relationships before there’s a problem,” Cornett said.

“I think most people would agree that’s a great idea but it takes more officers.”

Other panelists focused on the benefits of resurfacing and repairing streets, key components of the bond and sales tax proposals.

Extending the MAPS sales tax for 27 months — characterized by Cornett as a “booster shot” for streets — and adopting bond proposals for street repairs, widening and related improvements would raise an estimated $785 million over 10 years.

Chuck Mai, vice president of public and government affairs for AAA Oklahoma, said the auto club hears from its members — it has 200,000 in the metro area — about the poor condition of city streets.

He reviewed findings of a national report in which Oklahoma City ranked poorly among major cities when it comes to the condition of streets, a finding backed up by the city’s resident surveys.

Safety and vehicle wear and tear are leading issues for AAA, he said: “This is of great concern.”

Mikeal Clayton, site director and senior counsel for The Boeing Co. in Oklahoma City, said companies such as Boeing look for partnerships when locating new facilities or expanding.

Boeing brings a highly educated, well-compensated workforce to a community, he said.

“When you’re attracting those types of folks to Oklahoma City from elsewhere or attempting to retain those folks in Oklahoma City, they need to see something tangible from a partner,” Clayton said.

“Oklahoma City has a wonderful environment, it has a wonderful business climate but an engineer needs to see something,” he said. “There are few things more tangible to represent that partner’s investment than city streets.”

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