Curry presses Mayor Ballard on public safety questions

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry (WTHR file photo)
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Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry isn't holding anything back. He wants Mayor Greg Ballard to tackle public safety staffing and funding and he wants him to do it now.

In a letter sent to Mayor Ballard's office Monday, Curry calls public safety a crisis and says he's hearing about it throughout the community.

Curry is talking about the staffing shortages at the Indianapolis Metro Police Department. Recent reports indicate Indianapolis is short 700 officers. IMPD is estimated to lose 100 more by the end of 2014 and it's unable to see a recruit class on the street until 2015.

Curry says his staff is feeling the effects, saying at a recent homicide investigation, a deputy prosecutor had to supervise the crime scene because homicide detectives were spread too thin had no one to respond.

Curry says asking city departments to cut more expenses and reduce services is a shell game with unacceptable consequences. In his letter to the mayor and copied to City County Council President Maggie Lewis, he says, "I will be direct and to the point: if we are to continue to flourish as a world-class city, we must find the means to adequately fund public safety."

"Can we engage other police agencies, such as the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Speedway, Lawrence, Cumberland, Beech Grove, and other police departments, in a more collaborative approach to public safety?" Curry asked.

"We are at a crisis point. Inaction is simply unacceptable," he added.

Curry, a Democrat, also takes aim at both political parties, saying "political sniping" avoids the critical questions. Curry wants a bipartisan conversation. He says there are no easy answers but that his office is ready to talk.

Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said in response, "I'm the guy who has to pay the bills at the end of the day. I've only got so much money. We take 85 percent of the budget already. I'm trying to be efficient end effective as possible and people have to realize when you hire and officer, you may not be able to pave a road, you may have to close a park."

The mayor's office is busy putting final touches on his budget that will be presented to the City-County Council next Monday. Mayor Ballard's spokesman says the prosecutor should encourage more support for the mayor, who he says has been trying to increase public safety funding for over a year.  Ballard wanted to get rid of a homestead credit and put that $8 million to public safety, but the council voted it down. 

Read Curry's complete letter here:

Dear Mayor Ballard:

I will be direct and to the point: if we are to continue to flourish as a world-class city, we must find the means to adequately fund public safety. It is imperative that our community have a serious conversation about the future of crime prevention and public safety in Marion County.

For the past several months when meeting with neighborhood associations, faith groups, and other organizations, I have become a broken record with two messages: our public safety agencies are woefully underfunded and, as a community, we must undertake a substantive discussion about how we address this crisis.

I am certainly not alone in decrying the understaffing of our police and fire departments. It has been widely reported that our police department is critically understaffed. We are nearly 700 officers short of the force we need to be on par with comparable cities. With normal attrition, it is conservatively estimated we will lose 100 additional officers by the end of 2014. With the suggestion that there will not be a recruit class until the end of 2014 at the earliest, that means that there will not be any new IMPD officers until at least mid-2015.

The ripple effects of these staffing deficiencies are as ominous as the direct impact. When officers are stretched thin, it creates additional challenges for our staff, which in turn increases the burden on our judicial system. We rely each day on officers for evidence and testimony in criminal cases. Those officers need time to adequately prepare for court, where convictions of dangerous offenders hang in the balance.

At the Marion County Prosecutor's Office, we already are experiencing the troubling consequences of this trend. At the scene of a recent homicide, our deputy prosecutor was required to supervise the processing of the crime scene because homicide detectives were spread so thin that no one was available to respond immediately to that scene. In the area of traffic policing alone, we have witnessed a significant decrease in traffic enforcement because our police department simply does not have the manpower to make it a priority. Within the last 30 days, I had a ride-along with officers on the far Northeast side. When officers on the near Eastside were required at the scene of a shooting, the far Northeast officers were dispatched to cover other runs in that near Eastside zone, thus traveling over 12 miles to respond. Patrol officers are literally leap-frogging over each other to simply cover daily dispatch runs throughout the county.

Additional police officers on our streets will not alone alleviate crime in Marion County. On the other hand, the converse is undoubtedly true-- the unabated dwindling of our police force will assuredly diminish the ability to investigate and successfully prosecute such crime.

We must discuss short-term and long-term solutions, and time is of the essence. Can we engage other police agencies, such as the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Speedway, Lawrence, Cumberland, Beech Grove, and other police departments, in a more collaborative approach to public safety? Should we enlist the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, the Indianapolis Urban League, and other community organizations in a public discussion regarding public safety?

At the end of the day, the unfortunate reality is that the city and county must find the means to generate sufficient revenue to support fundamental governmental services. Cities and towns across Indiana have been hit hard by the constitutional property tax caps that reduced revenue for municipal services. Our office, like all other city and county agencies, continues to seek efficiencies that will save taxpayer dollars. However, the suggestion that government agencies must continue to construct their annual budgets by cutting expenses and reducing services to match constantly reduced revenue is a shell game which will lead to unacceptable consequences, as is readily apparent with the staffing crisis of our public safety agencies.

Political sniping from both sides of the aisle merely avoids the critical question at hand, and we need to hit the rhetorical reset button. A bipartisan conversation needs to include yourself, members of the City-County Council, myself, and other elected officials, as well as non-elected leaders who work each day in the public safety system. The Marion County Prosecutor's Office is prepared to participate in any such conversation.

I acknowledge that there are no easy answers and readily recognize that public debate on any issue is frequently subject to differing opinions. However, we are at a crisis point. Inaction is simply unacceptable.