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Budget jeopardizes Bradenton residents' safety, says police chief

BRADENTON — Law enforcement could be placed at risk if the city does not hire more police officers, Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski contends as he prepares to ask the City Council for additional funding.

Even after receiving a federal grant last month to maintain the ranks at current levels, there won’t be enough officers to adequately patrol the city, Radzilowski said.

“That means some neighborhood is going without their officer. We’re already so critically short,” he said.

Police officials are urging the mayor and city council to reconsider a hiring freeze imposed last year as they hold a budget workshop this morning for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

Like all city departments, the police budget has been affected by declines in tax and other revenue.

“Even if city council has to raise taxes, they need to do it for public safety,” Radzilowski insisted. “It’s for the well-being of the citizens.”

It’s also an issue of the officers’ safety, he said, adding, “We sometimes need two officers on a call and we only have one to send.”

U.S. Justice Department standards recommend police departments have at least 2.5 officers per 1,000 population, said Deputy Chief Bill Tokajer.

With 117 officers, Bradenton’s ratio, according to 2008 population estimates, is 2.1 officers per 1,000. Bringing the city force up to the national standard would require hiring an estimated 20 additional officers.

By comparison, Sarasota currently has 3.4 officers per 1,000 population.

The higher ratio, however, does not mean Sarasota has less crime. Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics show that Sarasota’s crime rate in 2008 was 46 percent higher than it was in Bradenton.

The Bradenton department is authorized to have 122 officers, but there currently are five vacancies. In a letter to the council last week, Radzilowski said he would like to have at least 124 officers on the force.

“I understand the city never had enough money for 124 but has approved and funded 122 sworn officers. I can work with 122 sworn officers but every position below that level is putting someone’s ward at greater risk.” Radzilowski wrote.

Carl Callahan, city treasurer, said the department last year had 120 officers and will be able to maintain that level in the coming year. The proposed budget for 2008-09 called for the police department to receive an estimated $12.5 million, or 38 percent of the city budget’s general funds. This year, the proposed budget calls for $11.9 million.

“We authorized 122 positions with the understanding two of those positions would not be filled because we are uncertain where our revenues are going to be,” Callahan said.

Bradenton Police will receive $1.1 million in October to retain six uniform officer positions through the COPS Hiring Recovery Fund, part of the federal stimulus program that lasts for three years.

Otherwise, there would have been 114 officers left after possible layoffs, Radzilowski said.

In October, the department will be able to expand its force to 120 with the grant. That’s also including funding from the Manatee school district and grants for four school resource officer positions.

In the meantime, Radzilowski has had to pay overtime for officers to put enough boots on the ground.

Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey said residents in her ward seem pleased with the police response to two brutal home invasion robberies in the area earlier this year. Both cases remain unsolved.

But would residents want to see an increase in their taxes for more officers? A Bradenton resident now pays an average $230 in annual taxes for police services. In Sarasota, taxpayers pay $502.

“I always encourage citizens to come forward and share their thoughts on how they would like their tax dollars spent,” she said.

JoAnn Spencer, president of the Washington Park Community Coalition, said her neighborhood, which has been plagued with drugs, gangs and home invasion robberies, cannot afford less police protection.

“We rely on police service. We have issues presently where we feel we can call them and they are able to come out right away,” she said. “When we call, we need to feel assured they can come out in a moment’s notice. ... I don’t think we should have to sacrifice police officers with crime the way it is.”

If more funding is not allocated for police, chances are they will have to take away from specialized units and focus on answering calls for service, said Greg Arnold, a criminal justice professor at State College of Florida.

Officers may no longer have as much time to randomly patrol neighborhoods. Instead, it could mean they go from call to call, Arnold said.

“Studies have indicated (random patrol) doesn’t lower crime in anyway. ... But we’re pretty much expected to because of the public perception,” he said.

Residents will have the opportunity to attend two budget hearings beginning at 5:01 p.m. Sept. 9 and the final one is slated for Sept. 23 at City Hall, 101 Old Main Street.