The candidates are 'off-target and misinformed,' a police official says.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mayoral candidates who suggested changes and improvements to the city's police department don't have even a basic understanding of how the department is run, police officials say.
"They're off-target and misinformed," said police Lt. Robin Lees. "People will exploit [a rash of recent murders] for political purposes, but the candidates are not well informed. It's a little disheartening when people take shots at you and are obviously unaware of what's going on."
Lees and Police Chief Robert Bush requested a meeting Friday with a Vindicator reporter. The pair wanted to respond to a Thursday article outlining the safety platforms of the six candidates running for mayor in the November general election.
Some candidates said the police department needs to reduce the number of officers on special units to get more officers on the streets, particularly in high-crime areas.
About two weeks ago, the police department assigned three new officers, and moved seven officers from various task forces to patrol, Lees and Bush said.
"If they were talking to police, they'd know what we are doing," said Bush, who finished second in the May Democratic primary for mayor. "They aren't getting information from officers because what they are suggesting is already being done."
What is going on?
From late June to Wednesday, the city recorded 10 homicides. There have been 24 killings so far this year; there were 22 recorded for all of 2004.
In 2003, the city had 19 homicides. But between late June and early September 2003, there was one homicide. That was when the Gun Reduction Interdiction Project was in Youngstown. The project increased the number of law enforcement officials -- local, state and federal -- on city streets with a zero-tolerance approach.
Mayoral candidate Jay Williams wants a smaller version of it provided in the city.
The city is already using a scaled-down version of GRIP this summer, Bush and Lees said. The 2003 GRIP program was funded through the general fund, they said.
With limited financial resources and the inability of Mahoning County to hold prisoners in jail because of its financial hardship issues, it's difficult to round up criminals only to see them released a short time later, Bush and Lees said.
The county's financial problems forced the sheriff's department, which runs the jail, to scale back the number of guards thus forcing the release of prisoners.
Robert F. Hagan, the Democratic mayoral nominee, wants the police department to have a zero-tolerance policy.
"It's hard to have a zero-tolerance policy when the jail is filled up," Bush said. "Without being charged with a major felony, most criminals are released from the jail in 72 hours."
While the number of calls to the police station hasn't decreased in the last eight years, the department has about 35 to 40 fewer officers than it had in 1997, Bush said.
The summer murder rate is a "hot-button political issue," Lees said, but it's wrong for the mayoral candidates to "exploit it for political gain. It's political rhetoric and we're trying to set the record straight."
Some candidates want the Youngstown Police Department to strengthen its relationship with other police agencies. Bush said the relationship between his department and others, particularly Liberty and Boardman, has never been stronger.