EUGENE, Ore. -- The understaffed Eugene Police Department is getting an infusion of new officers, but they won’t be making any arrests or stops anytime soon.
On Monday, 13 new officers began their training -- an 18-month process.
Chris Skinner was sworn in as chief of police in Eugene back on May 2. However, Skinner said his plan to better fight crime in the community began well before that.
“One of the things that was proposed to me during the interview process was to watch city council meetings,” Skinner said.
He said during one of those meetings, the interim police chief, David James, discussed staffing levels with the city council.
“That was my first real exposure to that -- watching an actual city council meeting and getting the first set of statistics that articulated where our staffing was,” Skinner said.
In the last five years, numbers have been steadily getting worse. While 911 calls for police have increased 21 percent, police and 911 staffing has remained flat.
The average wait time has increased by 20 minutes, and police are unable to respond to one out of every three calls due to a lack of patrol resources.
Skinner admits the department is understaffed and underserving the community.
Sgt. Marcus Pope has been with the department for 15 years. He said the lack of officers is hard to deal with.
“Well it's frustrating because there's a very human element to the job, and the citizens of Eugene have an expectation for us to respond to every call,” Pope said.
He said the struggle to find more officers is taking a toll on officer morale.
“It has an impact on family life because officers are getting drafted to come in early or stay late,” Pope said. “They’re denied time off in addition to missing holidays and important events.”
But help is on the way. In September, the Eugene City Council recommended a one-time, 18-month funding strategy called “Bridge Funding.” They will vote and likely pass it as part of a supplemental budget. That money will be used to bring in additional officers and staff.
Right now, Skinner is simply trying to stop the bleeding.
“I mean we’re down 14 positions now,” Skinner said. “I’m hiring 13.”
And it will be a while before the 13 are ready to roll solo.
“That’s really an important piece to this too because many people think the minute we hire officers we see value in that right away, and that’s just not the case,” Skinner said.
The new recruits started Monday. On Tuesday they were issued the new gear and equipment.
Up next is eight weeks of pre-academy training in Eugene to learn what to expect during the next phase. Phase two of training is 16 weeks at the Department of Public Safety Standards Academy in Salem. That will be followed by up to five months of field training in Eugene before they’re given keys to a car and cuffs.
Pope said one of their biggest challenges will be working under a lot of scrutiny due to incidents that have happened in other parts of the country.
New recruit Shawni Kroeker has worked for Eugene police for three years but is now moving to become an officer.
“I'm not worried about being under the microscope because I don't have anything to hide,” Kroeker said.
Pope said experience is something you can’t teach, and the first real test will be responding to a burglary or a call to assist another officer in need of help.
On Tuesday KEZI 9 News conducted a ride-along with Sgt. Pope.
Within 30 minutes Pope initiated a routine traffic stop that quickly escalated when Pope spotted a gun on the dashboard of the car he pulled over at Jefferson Street and Cheshire Avenue near the Rose Garden at Skinner Butte Park.
Pope was forced to call for backup and was fortunate one officer was between calls, and two others were given orders to clear calls they were on and respond.
Skinner is quick to point out the new officers ready to hit the streets in April 2020 will create another problem -- more work for dispatch and more reports and paperwork for support services.
The bridge funding council is expected to approve adding another 18-and-a-half positions. Skinner plans to hire 10 officers, five community officers and three-and-a-half dispatchers.
Skinner said he will then create a street crimes team designed to fix problems and not just address the situation with a show of force.
“It’s an inefficient model if we just continue to go out and deter and move problems around because we just end up responding to the same problems all the time,” Skinner said.
He said it is time to figure out ways to fix the problems they’re seeing.
Despite the 13 new officers, Skinner expects another 10 or 12 vacancies for next year due to attrition. He said even the additional 18-and-a-half positions keeps staffing levels flat.
Skinner said he’s hoping to continue to have positive conversations with city leaders about a strategic plan to add more officers and get staff numbers up to what similar-sized cities are carrying.