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Police chief changing department atmosphere

Police Chief Bill Conger updated the City Council Tuesday on improvements made to the police department since an audit presented a long list of staffing, organizational, communication and policy troubles.

The 30-page audit, prepared by the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management, was the result of a December council vote and was completed in March.

The audit found that the biggest problem within the police department is internal communication.

Conger, who was hired in March, told the council that when he took the position there were problems with vertical and lateral communication.

He said vertical communication has been improved by implementing a chain of command that did not previously exist for administration’s communication with officers.

“Official business goes through the sergeants now, where before they were circumvented, and that created a lot of morale issues,” he said.

But in a written report to the council, Conger said lateral communication and trust between officers is “the toughest challenge that is facing the department presently.”

“Communication walls were created over several years and now they have to be torn down, and mutual trust restored,” the report states.

Also, to improve communication, the audit recommended that regularly scheduled staff meetings be held at least once a week and that a formal policy regarding the exchange of information between shifts be implemented.

In his report, Conger states that biweekly staff meetings have been implemented, but because of an existing informal exchange of information between shifts, it may be unnecessary to mandate briefing times, which would create an overtime expense.

According to the audit, communication problems were compounded by the fact that department policy was guided by at least three different policy manuals: an old policy manual, a newer policy manual and a policy manual that is a combination of the two. Conger told the City Council that a new single policy manual will soon be completed.

“Is it going to be perfect? Probably not. But we will have a policy manual that will go into effect next week,” he said. “I’m proud of the fact that we were able to do that.”

Each member of the police department will receive a copy of the manual and training on the changes.

The audit also recommended the dispatch and records departments be merged, and employees cross-trained, so there can always be two dispatchers on duty.

During some shifts there is only one dispatcher on duty, making it difficult for the dispatcher to eat or use the restroom. One dispatcher told auditors she had to relieve herself in a garbage can at a time when she could not leave for a restroom break.

Conger told the council the department’s shortage of dispatchers, with only six, was “difficult.”

“Dispatch is the only place on the police department where when someone gets up, someone gets down,” he said.

Conger said the hiring of a seventh dispatcher was underway and could be completed in two weeks.

A new swing shift has also been created to provide time for officer training, according to Conger. Officers are required to have 24-hours of training annually.

The audit recommended the police department examine its 12-hour shift schedule to determine if there were alternate shift designs that would allow time for training purposes.

In his written report, Conger addressed other issues not included in his presentation.

One issue i s officers not writing enough citations because of what he said was low morale and a lack of training on new automatic citation-writing devices.

“I am sure that you are aware of the significant reduction in citation income,” Conger stated in his report. “Since this issue is ongoing, I am encouraging more citations.”

Conger’s report also states that a number of dispatch center security issues have been addressed, but not all of them, including opaque glass in the dispatch area making it difficult for dispatchers to see the faces of people in the lobby.

Conger’s report states that a camera in the police station lobby would help with this problem, but funding is an issue.

The audit recommended that sergeants should not have their own offices, but Conger stated in his report that he disagrees. The offices allow sergeants to have private conversations with their officers, and have space to complete work while protecting confidential information, he stated in his report.

Sections of the audit that addressed department use of force policy, investigative and traffic stop communications, audio and video use policy, citizen complaints, media relations, and the communication of sensitive information to nonofficers would be addressed in the new policy manual, Conger stated in his report.

The council praised Conger and the department for the work done to address the various issues. Councilman Duncan McCoy said the update was “refreshing.”

“Congratulations on actually making things happen as a result of this (audit),” he said.

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