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UPDATE WEDNESDAY: City needs more officers, says chief

Alexandria needs more police officers to keep the community and other officers safe.

That's what Police Chief Rick Wyffels told the Alexandria City Council while giving his annual report Monday night. The chief listed budget cuts and officer staffing as the department's biggest challenges.

Wyffels noted that the police budget has been frozen for four years, even after the city added significant population through two annexations.

"We are really stretched with our police officers," he said.

The department has made adjustments internally to keep costs down, such as adjusting officers' duties and using technology, Wyffels said, but it's not enough.

"We simply need more officers to handle the 14,000 to 16,000 calls we get per year," he said. "I hardly have the resources to put and keep our undercover officer in the drug task force."

Fighting drugs should be a priority, Wyffels said. "With the number of citizens that have been killed with drug abuse during the last two years in the city, we need to be as aggressive as we can be on this front," he said.

Other crimes such as burglaries, assaults, drunk driving, thefts and domestic violence are often rooted to drug abuse, Wyffels said.

Alexandria has one officer working with the Minnesota drug task force agency when other cities its size have three to five, Wyffels said.

When Wyffels moved here in 1987, Alexandria had a population of 7,680 people and 15 police officers. In the past 25 years, the city's population has grown to more than 12,000, an increase of 60 percent, but only five more officers have been added.

Not only has the population grown, the nature of the crimes has changed as well, with more Internet crime, drug trafficking along the Interstate 94 corridor, the emergence of synthetic drugs and the rising use of cocaine, crack and heroin, Wyffels said.

Council member Virgil Batesole said trying to determine how many officers are needed is difficult to evaluate, other than just taking Wyffels' word for it. He wanted to know if there was a more objective, scientific way.

Wyffels said that his number one measuring stick is officer safety. "In felony situations, I don't want one of my officers to go alone," he said.

The chief said there are other standards such as federal guidelines that recommend one officer per 500 to 600 people in a community but there are many other variables to consider, including crime rates and whether the city is a regional hub.

Batesole asked how cities determine how many officers are needed. Wyffels said there is no exact science to it and used Marshall, his hometown, as an example. He said Marshall is similar in population to Alexandria and has one more police officer yet it doesn't have nearly as many tourists and two-thirds the amount of calls.

Wyffels didn't request a specific number of additional officers. He said that having seven or eight additional officers would be the "ideal range" but added that he believes the department can safely operate below that range. Right now, the department is down about five officers from where it should be, he said.

The council, faced with state budget cuts, has held off hiring additional officers in the past three or four years. In 2009, the council authorized Wyffel's request to hire two more officers but then pulled back the funding when the state cut local government aid. An officer who quit his job at another city to accept a position here ended up without a job - a chain of events that Wyffels said tarnished the city's reputation.

After Wyffels delivered his report, he requested authorization to hire a replacement officer. This will fill a position held by Brian Kraemer, who recently left the department to start a new job with the city of Northfield, which is closer to his home.

The council, expressing support for Wyffels' leadership and his department, approved the request on a 4-0 vote. They also unanimously approved the annual report.

Another challenge facing the department is updating its police cars. Because of the tight budget, the department has held off purchasing multiple cars at once. Wyffels said the department is in "research mode" right now to come up with a plan to purchase more cars while considering officer safety and price.

"We simply cannot skip buying police cruisers this year," Wyffels said.

Challenges weren't the only topics the chief covered in his report. Read Friday's Echo Press for more about the police department's activities.

Also, find out about other council action on these issues: Rib Fest changes, American Legion Riders' motorcycle/car ride, assessor report, nuisance ordinance, cable TV commission appointments, economic development board appointment, Jefferson Street waterline project, a request to remove encumbrances to clear a title, a public hearing change for the 50th Avenue project, a joint meeting between the county and city, a joint meeting between the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the city, a grant for the Runestone Community Center,  and proclamations for Arbor Day and Thrivent Financial Day.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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