Three new Burlington Police Department employees would be he could eliminate the need for about 1,800 calls for service by officers, according to the police chief.
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The city has been experimenting with a tele-serve unit in its records division to take non-emergency criminal reports that don't require a sworn, armed officer on the scene this fall and now will make it a permanent part of the department.
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Chief Brian Long said other departments using tele-serve units report reducing call volume by 20%. Burlington Police answer about 9,000 calls per year, Long said, so that could cut about 1,800 of them if the unit performs as hoped.
Like a lot of police departments, Burlington has been struggling with staffing shortages for years. With 121 sworn officers, the department is short about 18, according to Assistant Police Chief Chris Gaddis.
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Answering so many calls is one reason officers have given for leaving the department in exit interviews, Long said. He hopes reducing the number of routine calls will give officers more time to focus on violent crime and community policing.
Police departments have experimented with and used tele-serve units for decades, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. A report for the Tallahassee Police Department said the program saved that city more than $40,000 in 2012 by keeping sworn officers from having to respond to things like shoplifting calls after the suspects are gone, and retailers just need a police report for insurance claims.
Tele-serve units, perhaps, don't seem as responsive to the public since residents don't see an officer in person at least not when they first report an incident. Long emphasized Burlington Police are not reducing the department's services but providing them differently to allow sworn officers to focus on high-priority calls.
The Fayetteville Police Department has a tele-serve unit, according to its website. Charlotte Police use a non-emergency line for minor offenses.
Long also plans to hire a public information officer who for the first time won't be a police officer. For years before becoming chief, Long handled much of the department's communications but now calls that a "misplaced" duty for a captain or assistant chief. Giving that work to someone with a media background would not only free up senior officers like Gaddis, but allow a communications professional to get the department's message out on social media more consistently to fill what the department considers a "gap" in local media coverage.
All four positions would cost the city about $183,000 for a full year, according to the department's proposal, but would not require any additional funding in the current fiscal year ending in June.
Isaac Groves is the Alamance County government watchdog reporter for the Times-News and the USA Today Network. Call or text 919-998-8039 with tips and comments or follow him on Twitter @TNIGroves.
This article originally appeared on Times-News: Burlington Police hiring tele-serve unit to take some low-level crimes off officers' plates