Six months ago, Robin Lees took the oath of office as Youngstown police chief armed with an overriding goal of increasing police presence on the oftentimes mean streets of the city. To Lees’ credit, he’s been unflinching in his commitment to that crucial objective.
The most recent public demonstration of that commitment came last week at a City Council Finance Committee meeting, where Lees outlined plans to downsize the administrative ranks of the department by reducing the number of captain positions from six to three.
“We’re top-heavy, and this is part of the effort to put more patrol officers on the street,” he told committee members.
The approximately quarter-million dollars that will be saved by that reduction in brass will be used to finance the hiring of additional street officers. Coupled with funding from grant programs and savings from other cost-cutting initiatives in the department, Lees hopes to hire at least 12 new officers to replace those retiring and to expand the ranks of police assigned to neighborhood duty.
Despite protests from some city council members that the reduction could trigger discrimination lawsuits by minority officers seeking promotion, the union representing the police force’s higher-ups has given the plan its blessing. In fact, members of the Youngstown Police Ranking Officers union actually proposed the reduction.
The union correctly understands the need for a greater police presence engaging residents in all seven wards of the city and a lesser police presence sitting in sterile offices tapping away at computer keys.
The chief’s plan itself also falls in line with this “core value” of the Youngstown Police Department: “We understand that service to the public is our main objective, as the police department strives to keep communication with the public open to build a partnership in reducing crime. We shall always do what is in the best interest of the community and serve public interest above serving ourselves.”
Lees’ captain-reduction plan comes at a most propitious time because it complements his larger goal of activating a community policing unit throughout the city by this fall. Under Lees’ plan, one officer would be assigned to each ward and would work closely with neighborhood groups and individuals to identify and rectify such quality-of-life issues as speeding problems, neighborhood nuisances, zoning violations and low-level criminal activity.
As Lees explained recently in a Vindy Radio appearance, the community policing unit can address such issues as problem solvers, not crime responders. Too often, time is not on the side of police as they are driven by 911 calls for emergency assistance, putting too many other lower-level problems on indefinite hold. But many of those low-level problems serve as breeding grounds for big-time crime.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, community policing is based on the “broken-windows theory.” It argues that signs of incivility, such as broken windows, signify that nobody cares, which leads to greater fear of crime and a breakdown in community cohesion. Community police units fix those broken windows before they can open a neighborhood up to more serious criminal damage.
Such CPUs have succeeded in reducing crime rates in cities across America. We’re confident it can have the same impact on Youngstown. It also will complement other ongoing initiatives including expanded street patrols, the multi-agency Violence Interruption Patrols and the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.
Through those and other efforts, the Youngstown Police Department has made great strides in reducing crime. Such progress needs to be strengthened. The reduction of captains that makes way for a strong community police unit will responsibly feed that need.