While City officials are still awaiting further information on when and how much funding is coming from the federal government to buoy lost revenues resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, some key unmet needs were articulated by the City’s Police Chief Mary Gavin and others at Monday’s City Council work session.
A lot is still unknown about the relief funds, including whether and how much can be applied to City budgetary needs in the coming year. Also unclear is how much the City can hope to expect from the combination of federal American Rescue Plan funds and the new $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill that still awaits federal approval.
It was suggested at Monday’s meeting that the $13 million from the Rescue funds initially estimated may be a higher than realistic number. For a City that is currently mulling an annual budget of $106 million for all of its services, including over $40 million for the schools, a boost of $13 million is a major deal.
Nonetheless, the mere thought of such resources opened up Monday’s virtual City Council work session for a new level of frankness about how currently understaffed some vital City departments are, beginning with the police.
Chief Gavin laid out a stark picture of the status of her department at present, underscored by a time last weekend when it took over an hour in the Little City for police to respond to a noise complaint because there was a death in a hotel room and a lost wallet call at the same time.
In another moment, there was a robbery at the Target here, a pedestrian injury in a City street and a fire on Roosevelt Avenue, all at the same time.
Both cases underscored the lack of sufficient manpower and resources of the department, which has been living on fumes for the last decade, starting with major cutbacks and delays in hiring resulting from the Great Recession’s impact on the City budget over a decade ago.
While the department staff is 34, for a variety of personnel reasons the actual operational strength of the department has been at 29, Gavin reported. She observed that in 1977, when the City’s population was far below its current estimated 15,300, the department personnel strength was 30.
She noted that it takes 18 months from the hiring of a police officer before that person can be trained and tested to get out on the street, and currently her department is not only dealing with an acute shortage, but there are internal pressures, including burn out from lack of time off, pay equity and other factors contributing to the department’s current situation.
This is on top of new expectations that are being imposed on police departments everywhere, she noted, due to the rise in concerns for use of force issues and mental health issues, in particular, in the past year.
“We need more people throughout our department,” Gavin pleaded. “We are right now at minimum staffing.”
Council member Letty Hardi said she’d like to see “comparables” regarding staffing levels and pay equity in other jurisdictions in the region.
For example, how does the fact the Falls Church department received 122 calls in the last two years on specifically mental health related issues compare?
In Fairfax County, it was noted, for example, mental health workers are now riding with police officers and new non-violent forms of constraints such as BolaWraps are now being used.
Councilman Phil Duncan pointed out the added burden of the introduction of police body cameras for the entire department, something that a $50,000 match grant is now being deployed so that there will be 40 body cameras available to the Falls Church department by July.
Minimally, that will cost the department here an extra $50,000 in the match and $45,000 estimated annually in recurring costs. This includes processing eight hours of videos per officer per day to handle new demands for transparency, including formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Unlike in the past, now officers prefer to carry the cameras to confirm they are giving accurate accounts of their work.
Gavin said the “new expectation” is that without a video, no police account is believable. There are new state mandated data requirements to guard against biases in police practices and Gavin said that her workforce is “very diverse.”
The police, she noted, do not link their radios to the staff of the Falls Church City Public Schools as a matter of policy (a prohibition on police radios outside the department) but the City police can view the live video feeds monitoring the new high school hallways.
Nancy Vincent, director of the City’s Human Resources division, noted that more than 70 households in the City needed significant assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic, compared to eight in the previous years. The City has expended $400,000 in rent relief during the crisis, he said, and state rental relief is being extended up to 15 months.