BEMIDJI – The Bemidji Police Department is doing a lot with a little.
In a city with one of the highest crime rates in the state, Bemidji police officers are constantly running from call to call, giving them less time for crime prevention efforts.
They are getting some help this year, when the city has budgeted for an extra sworn police officer, bringing them up to 32 spots.
“One (more officer) at least is going to put a dent in it to reduce some of the calls that they have to take,” Bemidji police Chief Mike Mastin said. Mayor-elect Rita Albrecht said she expects the council to revisit the conversation of adding another officer next year.
But the force hasn’t been at full strength for some time, and Mastin spent much of his first year as chief hiring and training new officers to replace a handful of experienced ones that have retired or resigned recently. He said he hired eight officers in 2012 alone.
That process is time and labor intensive, as every officer has to go through 14 weeks of field training after they are hired.
Not only have a number of officers left the department, but also a lot of experience. In the department’s 2012 strategic plan, Mastin said they lost about 130 years of experience due to retirements and resignations in 2011.
“There’s something to be said for being a cop for so long,” Mastin said. “You learn not just book stuff, (but) real-life experience.”
A heavy workload also means less time for experienced officers to teach younger ones, Mastin added. He’s hopeful more focus can be put on getting the force to full strength this year and on more crime prevention tactics.
“I hope to become much more proactive,” Mastin said. “But it all takes time and it takes people.”
Bemidji saw 23,068 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2011, significantly higher than similar-sized jurisdictions, according to data from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The city had the second-highest crime rate in Minnesota that year.
“This increased workload affects the officer’s ability to fully investigate crimes, participate in proactive crime reduction activities and engage in community services activities that build relationships with citizens and solve problems,” the department’s strategic plan reads.
Having fewer officers with a high rate of crime has also meant the department has used overtime. By mid-December, with one more pay period left, the department was $8,000 over its $115,000 overtime budget, according to an email from city finance director Ron Eischens.
Mastin said he’d rather use overtime than risk officer safety with slimmer patrols.
Meanwhile, the department’s 54 percent clearance rate – essentially the rate of crimes solved by citation or arrest – was slightly higher than the state average of 50 percent in 2011, according to the latest BCA statistics. That was an improvement from its 46 percent clearance rate in 2010.
Mastin hopes for a 5 percentage point improvement by the end of 2014.
Considering the challenges of a smaller police force with a high crime rate, city council members have been vocal in support of adding another officer.
“We’ve asked our police officers to do quite a bit and they’ve stepped up,” outgoing councilor Kevin Waldhausen said during the city council’s truth-in-taxation hearing.