Police staffing and violent crime discussed during Council's first meeting after the summer break
Lexington’s city council got back into session this week after a summer recess. The agenda for the first work session was relatively light, but the discussion was anything but that. The issue of violent crime got significant attention during council comment time.
Council comment during work sessions at Lexington City Hall often involves individual members talking about community events in their districts. Sometimes they are light in nature, like neighborhood meetings or celebrations. But not always. Council Member Richard Moloney started the discussion by talking about police staffing levels. He called it quote, “the biggest crisis I’ve seen in a long time.” Moloney says other cities are using federal COVID dollars to hike up police pay.
“A lot of these cities with their ARPA money have been hiring police officers at higher pay. They’ve been using their ARPA money to hire police at a higher pace than we’re paying,” said Moloney.
Moloney spoke about the department being short by more than a hundred officers and a similar number considering retirement. Later Police Chief Lawrence Weathers said the vacancy number was 83 officers.
Council Member James Brown said staffing challenges within the police are resulting in re-assignments. Brown talked about the loss of neighborhood resource officers in downtown communities.
“We’re so short-staffed that the department can’t assign folks to those duties right now. We’ve got to cover patrols as needed. But, I’ve seen the effectiveness of neighborhood resources officers, how they build relationships, how they work to address concerns before they get to a point where we’re at levels where we’ve got to do something more serious,” said Brown.
Brown said violence is more spread out across the city.
Council member Amanda Mays-Bledsoe said part of the problem involves the number of offenders living in the community. She says re-arresting is not solving the problem. During the work session, she cited two examples.
“We arrested somebody in June, this person was bonded the same day. They had a felony, tampering, criminal trespassing. Had three prior violent felonies, still out. Somebody else was arrested in January for assault. Three months later assaults a police officer, ten days later arrested for strangulation, still out. I think we need more people at this table,” said Mays Bledsoe
Council Member Chuck Ellinger said violence is the number one issue and he also labeled it a crisis in Lexington.
Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton responded to say a lot of violent criminal activity is tied to domestic conflict.
“As of August the tenth, Lexington had had 28 homicides, nine of which were domestic violence. Nine. In 2021, Lexington had zero domestic violence-related homicides. This is a growing issue. It’s real,” said Gorton.
Police Chief Lawrence Weathers says police recruitment is a problem at the national level too. He says it’s still important to rebuild confidence in law enforcement. Councilman Moloney suggested opening the police collective bargaining agreement to provide more money for pay. Chief Weathers doesn’t think that would help.
“That’s a never-ending battle right there. When we went in negotiating before, they negotiated for higher salaries, based on what the pay was then. Soon as they signed that contract and other people saw what Lexington was getting, they raised their salaries,” said Weathers.
Mayor Gorton says there’s a heavy focus on recruiting for all public safety positions, police, E-9-1-1, and corrections. The mayor says they are seeing an improvement in recruiting, but it is moving slowly. After the work session, Gorton admitted the competition is significant.
“It’s very competitive. Unbelievably competitive, because everybody needs public safety officers whether it’s police or E-9-1-1 and everybody’s looking at the pay,” said Gorton.
This week, the mayor’s office announced steps have been taken to improve public safety. These include assigning extra officers and Sheriff’s deputies downtown and the full use of license reading cameras that have, among other things, helped in the recovery of over a million dollars in stolen vehicles and the seizure of 28 guns. Next week the mayor’s administration plans to ask Council for approval for retention bonuses in public safety.