Police officers and firefighters are arguably some of the most important people in this city, but right now Corpus Christi faces a massive shortage of them.
“If the police department crumbles, then it's just a matter of time before the citizens crumble,” said Scott Leeton, President of the Police Officers Association.
Leeton has been with the Corpus Christi Police Department for over 30 years. As he has watched the city grow by 52,000 people in the last 20 years, he said the number of police officers has not grown at all. In fact, it's become worse. We have fewer officers now than we did in 1997.
“I think that's the most concerning thing that the public should be cognitive of,” Leeton said. “That today we still only have 438 officers, yet 20 years ago we had 451.”
Leeton said the U.S. Department of Justice recommends that a city have 2.5 police officers per 1,000 people. According to the CCPD, Corpus Christi is at 1.35 officers per citizen. To even compare to the numbers of officers most cities our size currently have, we would need to add more than 360 officers to the fleet. The City said they have found money to add eight total.
CCPD Chief Mike Markle will utilize grant money and state funds where he can, but after the City turned down his suggested plan in may to add 10 officers a year for 12 years, it has left him to work many of his officers overtime. His department is stretched thin.
“Our calls have gone up about 18-percent in the last few years,” Markle said. “We focus on priority calls. We’ve done well, but there are times when we take a little time to get to a non-priority call.”
Markle added that there are times when people wait an hour for non-emergency calls.
“We do more with less,” Markle said.
The Corpus Christi Fire Department has the same problem.
“The number of companies we have has been increasing, yet the number of personnel we have dedicated to the fire department has not,” CCFD Chief Robert Rocha said.
Fire Station 18 on the southside of town is set to open Nov. 15. It's part of a 2008 bond voters approved. The plan calls for that station to be staffed with 15 new firefighters. That never happened.
“I was instructed by the City to staff the new fire station but using existing personnel,” Rocha said.
Rocha said he was forced to pull 12 firefighters from one of the most crucial stations in the city, Fire Station 1, which serves areas like the Port of Corpus Christi and North Beach.
“Currently Station 1 covers the most valuable real estate in the city of Corpus Christi,” Rocha said. “The downtown area.”
So the big question is, where do we get the money to fix this public safety shortage?
Councilwoman Paulette Guajardo recently hosted a public safety workshop with the rest of Corpus Christi’s City Council for the first time ever to address the issue. She's pushing to find the money internally without raising taxes.
“It's all about looking into the budget and getting creative,” Guajardo said. “We're looking. We're looking for ways.”
However, the most powerful person in Corpus Christi disagrees with them.
Mayor Joe McComb said the police and fire departments are doing just fine with what they have, adding that the others are misinterpreting the DOJ’s numbers.
“They're not recommending a certain level, they're just simply reporting the facts. This is what it is on an average basis nationwide,” McComb said. “If we're providing good service and we're under what the national average is, then that means we have an exceptional police department.”
McComb said the City doesn't even have the money to keep up with our existing officers and firefighters, let alone adding more. He said in order to even consider expanding, the police union should start cutting officers' salaries and benefits.
“The police union has to acknowledge that the road they're traveling is a dead-end street in terms of being able to survive,” McComb said. “You keep these rates up, it's not sustainable and you force the City into bankruptcy.”
McComb is also critical of leaders who came before him who went forward with building Fire Station 18 while knowing that the City ultimately could not afford the firefighters to staff it.
“You can build a fire station but we don't have anyone to put in it, but for political reasons they just forged their way through to build the fire station,” McComb said. “That wasn't good decision making.”
City leaders are unsure of what to do next.
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