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On public safety: Mayoral candidates share their views on Kokomo’s public safety

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Mayoral candidates

STAFFING INCREASES? — Kokomo’s mayoral candidates sound off on public safety for the second topic in the Perspective’s series that aims to better get to know the candidates running for the city’s highest office.

The matter of public safety so far in this year’s mayoral race has served as a contentious topic. This week, each candidate vying for the mayor’s office shared their opinions regarding Kokomo’s police and fire departments.

Previously, mayoral candidates Abbie Smith (D), Tyler Moore (R), and Michael Virgin (L) weighed in on pressing questions concerning economic development in the City of Firsts. In this week’s edition of the Kokomo Perspective, the candidates tackle questions concerning public safety.

Each candidate previously received a list of questions surrounding various public safety issues, and their answers are printed just as they were given, with the exception of minor grammatical corrections.

1. What do you believe the most pressing public safety issue is that Kokomo faces, and how would you address it if elected?

Abbie Smith, Democrat: “Recently, we had a situation that demonstrates the complexities we’re facing. On the surface, it looked like a shooting – two men, drugs, a woman, the 911 caller, and the most heart-breaking part, the two children who witnessed the horrific scene.

“How do you pick one issue in that? Honestly, you can’t. It would be irresponsible to do so. It would be like a surgical team removing an appendix but not sewing up the patient and scrubbing out.

“We’ve forgotten people in that scene: first responders, people who willingly rushed to help in a dangerous, unpredictable situation. Leaving them unprotected is also irresponsible

“A comprehensive look at the tools we give our first responders to do their job is a basic responsibility of my job as mayor: more and better training, manpower, equipment.

“We need to do better. We need to follow up with all the people involved. Public safety is at its best when we treat the entire ‘patient’ not just individual ‘symptoms.’”

Tyler Moore, Republican: “I believe the staffing levels of the Kokomo Police Department and Kokomo Fire Department are inadequate for a community the size of Kokomo, and this is the most pressing issue for not only the safety of our citizens but that of the officers and firefighters themselves. The public safety pillar of my campaign platform I recently released spells out the plan I expect to implement once I am elected. That plan can be found at www.MooreForKokomo.com.”

Michael Virgin, Libertarian: “I feel that the reduced staffing (30 to 40 percent) in both KFD and KPD is hampering the ability of these department to effectively handle public safety in the city. I also feel that the low staffing, coupled with the drug epidemic/gang violence, is creating conditions within the city that are unacceptably dangerous. There will always be crime and some inherent danger in having a big society, but to reduce our public safety staffing to this extent only invites trouble and amplifies the violence and crime.”

2. Do you believe the Kokomo Police Department is properly staffed? Why or why not, and if not, what would be an ideal range of officers?

Smith: “We consistently miss the heart of the matter when discussing public safety and officers. It is a much broader, more complicated issue than just numbers. When officers spend 60-plus percent of their time responding to calls, the rest is in a mindset of response. Community engagement and training cannot get attention. This is not a criticism, rather an explanation of the burnout officers currently experience. Increasing patrol levels and ratios benefits taxpayers with more proactive community policing which, with other interventions, reduces crime.

“Seventy-eight sworn officers with approximately 40 percent eligible to retire in the next couple years, competitive market, an academy waiting list, and an extended onboarding time is not currently an adequate amount for Kokomo.

“While I don’t have the exact number, I do know we need to begin the process immediately. Fifty percent are eligible to retire in the next two to three years. We have to start now. We’re already behind.”

Moore: “Again, I do not believe the Kokomo Police Department has been properly staffed for years now. The lack of proper back up, the amount of overtime expected, and the lack of additional training available has put our community and our officers in an unfortunate and dangerous situation. Many citizens have expressed their concerns with the level (or lack thereof) of protection being provided. This in no way reflects the job the officers of KPD are doing with the resources they have been given.

“The community appreciates all the work these fine individuals are doing — people just realize they are understaffed and overworked. The City Council approved the 2019 budget to staff the KPD at approximately 91 officers. This would be a good starting point; however, I plan on sitting down with the new leadership of the department to determine and assure the most appropriate staffing levels for our community.”

Virgin: “No. I feel that all campaigns have already touched on this and declared staffing to be too low. The first step is to use the 2010-2012 staffing. This gets you started, and we work towards a staffing of 100 to 105 officers. This can be achieved through a couple larger recruit processes teamed up with multiple lateral transfers to boost officers in the immediate months. It should be a policy that, in a city our size, public safety staffing in both departments at the very least never goes below triple digits. Once the triple-digit goal is reached, then we can continue to work towards 110 to 120 for a more fully-staffed police department.”

3. Do you believe Kokomo Fire Department is properly staffed? Why or why not, and if not, what would be an ideal range of firefighters?

Smith: “We are still missing the mark if we are only evaluating our fire service on the number of firefighters. A fire department should be evaluated based on results: the dollar amount of fire loss over time, civilian fire deaths and injuries, firefighter deaths and injuries, etc.

“Let’s elevate the conversation. Let’s look forward. Let’s figure out what we want to do and how to get that done. Together.

“As with police officers, I don’t have the exact number where we need to end up, but I do know we need to begin the process immediately. Fifty-percent are eligible to retire or will be in the next two to three years. We have to start now. We’re already behind.”

Moore: “Like my position on the staffing level of the KPD, I feel the Kokomo Fire Department is also understaffed. The International Association of Firefighters published a report for Kokomo which states that according to National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) Standard 1710 recommends “that apparatus whose primary function is fire suppression should be staffed with a minimum of four firefighters.” With a community our size that also contains heavy manufacturing (ie. Haynes, FCA/Chrysler, etc.), I feel that the NFPA suggested level of staffing should be attained. Our current battalions have two to three maximum for most KFD apparatus. I feel that a minimum of four firefighters per apparatus should be considered, and I plan to sit with the new KFD leadership to determine if these levels are most appropriate.”

Virgin: “No. Although KPD gets more attention, KFD also took a big staffing hit from the current city administration. It’s appalling how low their staffing is. This has a negative effect on training capabilities and holds the department back from fully evolving and living to its own high standard. If we work towards 2010-2012 levels, we want an initial bump to 105 to 110 firefighters. This can be achieved over the next four years through two very large, expedited recruit processes in conjunction with multiple lateral transfers for both firefighters and firefighter/paramedics. The ultimate long-term goal is for fire staffing to reach 120 to 125. (*staffing will be increased in both departments; it just depends on finances, grant opportunities, and budget appropriations on how quickly we can start the process of bringing levels back up).”

4. If you believe we need more police or firefighters, how can we better attract potential applicants to the departments?

Smith: “A key piece of my platform is workforce development. We need to stay competitive in the job market for talent attraction and retention. The number of retirees versus new hires is not in balance, especially considering the onboarding and training required in this particular field.

“What is inside firefighters that makes them run into burning buildings and toward dangerous situations – there’s no amount of money that translates to that. It’s what makes them who they are.

“But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to provide for their families, retire someday, take a vacation.

“I’ve spent my career fighting for working families. Just because they didn’t get in this line of work to get rich doesn’t mean they should take on unnecessary hardships or make unnecessary sacrifices.

“As mayor, I will make every effort to ensure they have the resources to live their best life. They deserve that.”

Moore: “The first step in improving the number and quality of potential applicants is building the morale of each department from within. As mayor of Kokomo, I will make sure both departments realize they have my support and respect. We may not always agree on certain issues, but at the end of the day or at the end of a watch, I will want them to know they’re appreciated. Boosting the morale of our officers and firefighters will then lead to improvements within the departments and will better our reputation statewide.

“Also, I will support the return of available training for our KPD officers and similar opportunities for our KFD firefighters as well. Consequently, those considering Kokomo for their career in public safety will see that our city administration is fully committed to supporting the development and well-being of its officers and firefighters and will then regard Kokomo as one of their top choices with whom to serve.”

Virgin: “Both departments are heavily politicized and full of ‘yes men’ to the current city administration. That is why a merit-board system is crucial. It creates a more balanced system that hires and promotes based on one’s merit and not merely based on who the applicant politically supported. With a new chief and a revitalized attitude focused on more staffing and proactive/community outreach, we will begin an aggressive recruitment process throughout the state and region.

“If word is out that KPD is being restored into a fully staffed and equipped department that is merit-based, it could help drum up support. Likewise, with the firefighters, it’s the same thing. We get a new chief, more staffing, more EMS training with the hospitals, more firefighter/medics, a merit-based system, etc., and we advertise and promote this throughout the region. It will take time, but it’s definitely achievable with the right amount of assertiveness.”

Next week, the Perspective will feature part 2 of the candidates’ responses on the topic of public safety.