Sylva PD Requests Two Additional Officers

During our budget talks this year the Sylva PD requested two additional officers be added to the current department total of 14 full-time officers.  I have received numerous calls and emails about this and a large portion of our community seems interested enough by this request that I felt the need to share some information about our PD budget and the work that they do and the trends in the data that have led to this request.

Chief Hatton presented the graphic shown below to commissioners this year and a similar chart last year as evidence for why the Sylva PD needs two additional officers.  As you can see, the chart shows exponentially increasing “Calls for Service/Actions” to the Sylva PD.  At first glance it makes a convincing case that there is a need to increase officers.

This graphic was a surprise to see because the number of people in Sylva is not increasing, crime rates are not increasing, we aren’t serving an increasing area or population, national statistics show a steadily flat trend in 911 call volume…so what is going on in Sylva?  I compared our data with national statistics on police call volume and statistically there should only be around 1,900 calls to the police department in any given year.  But this chart shows 13,000.  So clearly there is a need to dig a little deeper into the data to see what exactly is increasing so much in Sylva.  I called our county’s dispatch office, which is who tracks this data for the Sylva PD and who provided the numbers that went into the chart, and asked for all the raw data they could provide.  It was provided in print form which I added to a spreadsheet.

 

First thing I learned and a point that needs clarifying:  This is not a graph, as I originally thought, of the number of calls to the police department…although it does include that number.  This is a graph of any and all actions logged by officers throughout the year.  Any time an officer takes an action then he or she should log something into their CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) system and these are tracked by our county dispatch office.  When dispatch receives a 911 call for a domestic disturbance then that info gets sent to an officer and logged in the system as an “action”.  Also, when an officer is driving around at night and stops by a closed business and checks to make sure everything looks normal then that too gets logged as an “action” in the CAD system by the officer.  That action would be classified as a “business security check” in the system.  There are 244 different actions/categories that can be logged (or at least that’s how many different ones have been logged by the Sylva PD since 2015).  They include categories like “rape” and “suicide” but also things like “pocket dial”, “mistake call”, and “test”.  See the spreadsheet at the bottom for the complete list of categories along with all the data from 2015 to 2020.

Chart Provided By Chief Hatton

I have one major issue with this chart.  This is a chart showing an increase in police actions taken and the proposed solution is more police officers.  However, this would result in making his chart's line increase even more because adding more police officers is going to mean even more actions taken in any given year.  So clearly we need a different metric to determine whether or not we need to increase our police force.  But regardless, actions are increasing and the number of police officers isn’t so let’s see what is increasing, what’s staying flat, and what is decreasing.

Increasing Trends

First thing I did was sort the data by what increased the most from 2019 to 2020.  Looking through the list of increases you will see that crime is not very present until we get down into increases in single digit quantities.  But there are some standout categories at the top...including one that increased by thousands.  The category that saw the largest increase was “Business Security Check”.  This is when the officer, usually at night, goes around and checks closed businesses to make sure everything looks normal.  This category went from 708 to 3350.  It is also by far the largest category.  Here are the top 10 along with the amount they increased:

  1. Business Security Check: Increase of 2642

  2. Bank Security Check: Increase of 914

  3. Call by phone: Increase of 394

  4. Pinnacle Park Patrol: Increase of 261

  5. Church Security Check: Increase of 215

  6. BOLO (Be On Lookout): Increase of 179

  7. Poteet Park Patrol: Increase of 141

  8. Bryson Park Patrol: Increase of 133

  9. Day Care Security Check: Increase of 95

  10. Investigate ___ at: Increase of 92

 

Most of these categories are self explanatory…a church security check is when an officer goes by a church to make sure everything is ok.  It is not reacting to a call from a church.  Same with a business security check.  These security checks of businesses, banks, day cares, our parks, and churches are certainly all things we want our officers to be doing because they are proactive actions and they get our officers involved in our community.  However, they make up 7 out of the 10 largest increase categories.  They account for 86% of the top ten increases in actions. 

The thing that is important to note here is that none of these are crimes.  These are proactive actions taken by the Sylva PD in order to prevent crime (or catch one happening).  So a couple of questions here:

  1. Did these large increases in patrols of our parks, businesses, and churches result in similarly large decreases in occurrences of theft, vandalism, or breaking and entering?  We’ll see as we look more at the data that vandalism trends are flat, thefts increased by 6 last year but is mostly flat throughout the last five years, trespassing is flat recently but up in the long term, larceny is down, and breaking and entering is flat lately and down overall in the long-run.

  2. Do these increases justify additional officers?  In my opinion since they don’t seem to be having an impact on changing overall trends in crime nor are they a result of increasing trends in crime then no.

  3. Did these numbers actually increase or is the Sylva PD getting better at logging them?  These security checks were not logged at all before 2019 and they now number in the thousands.  However, we know that the Sylva PD was performing them before 2019 and have been for a long time.  So certainly this increase is largely due to it not having been reported in the past.  However, I think that Chief Hatton has done a good job of increasing officer involvement in the community and these numbers definitely speak to that.  These are the kinds of things we want our officers to be doing.

So now to expand the increasing trend to more than just the top 10.  Which crimes are increasing and by how much? Going down the list of increasing trends the first crime we come to is “Traffic Violation/Complaint/Hazard”.  This increased by 41.  Considering we are talking about an overall increase of 5,301 actions taken by the Sylva PD and the crime with the highest increase only increased by 41 then I think that is fairly minimal.  Also, this category appears to be an anomaly since there are numerous other categories for traffic violations and this one was logged as 0 the year before and 41 last year, hence the increase.  But if we look at actual traffic accidents (logged in other categories) then those numbers are actually down.  The next crime listed is “dispute”.  It was up by 30.  “Reckless driver” is up 19.  “Fight In Progress” is up by 10.  “Domestic Disturbance” is up by 9.  I don’t consider an overdose to be a crime but they increased from 11 to 19 which is very bad.  The category is “overdose/poisoning (ingestion)” so it also could include accidental poisoning but I think it’s safe to assume the vast majority of these are drug overdoses.  However, by this point in the list of increases we are talking very low numbers of increases in remaining crime categories.  And most crime categories are decreasing.

There are a number of increases in some very disturbing categories such as “suicide” (up to 11 from 7 the year before) and “Hit and Run/Person Injured” (up to 3 from 1 the year before).  But there are very few crimes and even fewer serious crimes in the increasing category.  Most serious crime categories such as “Sexual Assault” are in decline, flat, or have incredibly low increases.  Other notable increases are in “crosswalk campaigns”, "burglar alarms" (up this last year but down from 2018).  A lot of the increases are in categories that I don’t really understand like “report” which I guess is just a generic term for an officer filing a report (it increased by 45)?? “Serving papers” is up, “Officer Needs Assistance” is up by 11.

Chart Showing Largest Increases

Flat or Decreasing Trends

Now we'll take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum where we see the categories with the largest decreases in numbers from 2019 to 2020.  The largest decrease was in the “Traffic Stop” category at a loss of 250.  Covid is obviously a large contributor to this statistic since so many fewer cars were on the road.  So throwing out this year and looking back throughout the years this number stays basically flat.  There were 1,645 in 2019, 1,992 in 2018 and 1,625 in 2017.  Next is a decline in the category “Suspicious Person” by 93.  The generic “accident” category decreased by 81.  “Animal Call” decreased by 74.  “Owner of Vehicle” (not sure what gets classified here) decreased by 61…my guess is this is a call in to dispatch for them to identify the owner of a vacant vehicle but that’s just a guess.  “Out of Vehicle” is next, followed by “assist motorist” and then “shoplifting”.  Shoplifting is down from 72 to 44.  Covid is probably most responsible for the large decrease in shoplifting this last year but overall “shoplifting” has been in a decline since 2015.

Chart Showing Largest Decreases

I compiled all the categories that are crimes into one chart so you can see that overall crime has been fairly flat throughout the years with a downward trend in the last few years.

Conclusions From the Data

After diving into this data I do not think that there is need for 2 additional officers at the Sylva PD.  Contrary to what the original chart would indicate, there is no exponential increase in crime in Sylva.  Nor does there appear to be an increase overall in crime at all.  Most crime categories are showing a decline in numbers.  I obviously do not work at the Sylva PD and am not privy to the day-to-day operations and the increased burden our officers face.  I’m certainly not suggesting that they aren’t overworked and underappreciated.  But my first instinct is to look to alternative solutions to this problem since crime doesn’t appear to be the driving factor behind the increases in actions.  Like I stated earlier, most of the increases in actions appear to come from better reporting and increased patrols of our parks, churches, and businesses.  However, the drastic increase in these actions did not result in a similar drastic reduction in vandalism or theft.  And those numbers are so very low to begin with anyway.

One issue our department faces, as mentioned by our Chief, is the high traffic count on 107.  107 can account for almost 30,000 cars a day passing through a town with a population of around 2600.  Our PD’s mode of operation has been to exclusively shoulder this burden and serve as the primary responder for any incident occurring along this corridor.  However, every single Sylva resident that pays taxes to Sylva also pays taxes to Jackson County which funds the Sheriff’s department with those dollars.  Furthermore, 107 is a state highway which falls under the state highway patrol’s jurisdiction.  I think an increase in the share of that burden among the other entities who also receive tax dollars from our town residents is a suitable solution to policing 107.

This dispatch data is not the only place I looked to form an opinion on whether or not we need more officers.  I also compared our PD size and budget to towns around us like Waynesville, Bryson City, and Franklin…and also the nation as a whole.  The average number of officers per 1000 people in the U.S is 2.4 and in cities with fewer than 10,000 people it’s 3.5 officers/1000 people.  Sylva currently has 5.41 officers/1000 people and adding two more would put us at 6.1 officers/1000 people.  That would be nearly twice the average number for towns our size.  We’re already higher than any of the surrounding towns (Franklin: 4.74, Bryson City: 4.8, Waynesville: 3.8).

To give people a sense of the scale of our current police department funding…last year we collected $1.76 Million in property taxes and we spent $1.41 Million on our police department.  Two additional officers would cost the town $162,000 more next year (and $118,000/year after that), plus additional training and gear.  Town board members have to weigh that cost against the benefit the community would get from having more officers and the other areas that money could be spent that might have a greater impact in people’s lives.  If Sylva were to add additional officers then we would need to raise taxes in order to do it and that is not something that I feel this data warrants.

I am a firm believer in the regionalization of services.  TWSA was the result of this movement and although we suffered in the past from horrifically high impact fees that problem is now largely fixed and our system enjoys the benefit of having one organizational and management body for the entirety of systems across the county.  Other counties have separate municipally-owned systems which each have a director and assets, buildings, vehicles, etc. but Jackson County has one single organization for the whole county.  Sharing resources like this saves money and creates a cohesion that reduces conflict and costs.  I think the same movement will eventually be the case for law enforcement.  The drastic increase in the cost of policing is a problem that towns the size of Sylva are really struggling with.  For example, we have the Sylva police department building, which cost over $1million dollars to remodel, and it sits less than one mile away from the Jackson County Sheriff’s department which has the exact same infrastructure.  The overlap in costs between running a separate police department completely within the bounds of another police department creates repeating costs that both the town and the county must bear.  I don’t think the day is near where these two organizations should merge but in the long run it seems to be an inevitability.  Given the increase in cost of policing and the repeat in resources that different agencies serving the same area are having to purchase then it really is the only sustainable long-term solution that makes sense to me.  With the money Sylva would save by going that route we could pay for every town resident who graduates Smoky Mountain High School to go to SCC or WCU.  There are numerous other things we could be doing to help our community, reduce crime, and still contribute to policing at the county level.  But that is a discussion for another day!

Sylva PD CAD Data from Jackson County Dispatch 2015-2020

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