Dunwoody grapples with police shortage

Call for a police officer in Dunwoody, and you could be in for a wait.

With just under four dozen sworn officers, the city of 46,800 has one of the state’s lowest ratios of officers to its population, and police must often rank emergency calls by priority.

City leaders acknowledged the deficiency recently by boosting the police budget by 14 percent to $5.7 million.

Chief Billy Grogan says the department has been stretched since the city incorporated four years ago. Right now, the department has 0.9 officers for every 1,000 residents.

“We want to make people understand that if it’s a true emergency — a burglary in progress — then officers on a less serious call will go handle it,” Grogan said.

Still, about 25 percent of the time when a call is ready to be dispatched, Dunwoody police are busy on another call, a recent department study shows.

And calls for service are growing. Through September, the department received nearly 42,000 calls, up 77 percent from the same period last year.

Those calls partly reflect the growth in major crime, which is up about 18 percent from last year. While violent crime is down, property crimes are up 21 percent.

About half the increase in service calls comes from the city’s recent switch to a more localized dispatch service that records calls between officers. The old dispatch system did not log intra-departmental calls.

There is no question, though, that police are busier than ever, Grogan said, and that can lead to more crime.

“You want officers to have free time to do some self-initiated activity — driving through neighborhoods, going through the park, being visible,” he said.

Dunwoody is not the only metro Atlanta city with a low police ratio to its population.

Johns Creek has 61 sworn officers for its 77,700 residents, about 0.8 officers per 1,000. Milton has about the same ratio with 26 officers for 33,000 residents.

“The challenge for the JCPD is being able to continue delivering the same services we are today, while the calls for service keep increasing,” said Johns Creek Police Chief Ed Densmore. “We can project the number of calls we’ll get in the future, but it’s maintaining the level of service our community has come to expect.”

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that municipal and township police departments averaged 2.3 full-time officers per 1,000 residents in 2008, the latest year data were available.

Nearby cities, such as Alpharetta, Roswell and Sandy Springs, have much higher ratios of officers for their populations.

Police organizations argue that ratio to residents is not the sole factor police use to determine staffing needs. Crime rates, coverage area and level of training also weigh in the equation.

Dunwoody’s budget increase should provide funding for four more officers in 2013, but that’s still well below the staffing found in nearly all similarly sized cities in metro Atlanta.

Alpharetta, for example, has about 24 percent more people and about 80 percent more area, but it has 130 percent more officers. Both cities have super highways and large shopping malls. Yet, major crime in Alpharetta is 15 percent lower than in Dunwoody.

Dunwoody City Councilman Terry Nall said no police department will ever have officers available 100 percent of the time, but he’s certain Dunwoody needs to do better than 75 percent.

“This highlights the need for a team to do pro-active policing, targeting residential and business areas that have a higher propensity for crime,” he said.

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