Police chief reports on challenges aheadWhen a resident at an adult foster home in Alexandria was reported missing one night earlier this month, local authorities sprang into action.
By: Al Edenloff, Alexandria Echo Press
When a resident at an adult foster home in Alexandria was reported missing one night earlier this month, local authorities sprang into action.
They launched a full-scale search. Police officers, dispatchers and Alexandria firefighters worked together to set up a grid and they combed the city looking for the missing man who was in danger of hurting himself.
The search was successful. The man was quickly found, unharmed.
The incident provides a glimpse into the teamwork and partnerships the police department has forged, noted Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels. He presented an annual report of his department’s activities at Monday night’s Alexandria City Council meeting.
“Do you know that twice a month, the fire department invites our working staff to share in a meal and get to know each other?” Wyffels asked the council. “It is these kinds of partnerships that build strong bridges and understanding amongst multiple city departments.
“There are no egos or turf battles that get in the way,” the chief added.
The director of the foster care home was impressed enough to write the police department a letter. “The professionalism and compassion shown from the dispatchers with the compassionate/calm tone of voice to the persons who were out in the dark, cold night looking for our resident was amazing,” she wrote.
Wyffels told the council that taxpayers deserve to have city departments that work well with one another.
“Each of us are one cog in a gear, which would be quite ineffective by ourselves, but as a whole can accomplish things needed to make our city a place people feel safe to live in,” Wyffels said.
The chief summed up some of the highlights of the past year:
Four officers were recently nominated to receive “outstanding officers of the year” awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Three of them received certificates of excellent achievement and one officer received the “rookie of the year” award for the entire state of Minnesota for enforcing traffic and drunk driving laws.
Nine Alexandria police officers recently volunteered to go to Moorhead to fight the flooding.
“Not only did they get a different perspective of our job in a natural disaster, we continue to build bridges with our neighobors, the very people we would call on in times of need.”
Wyffels also talked briefly about some of his own achievements, which council member Sara Carlson later said deserved more than a casual glossing- over. She called them “heavy duty accomplishments for a relatively new chief; Wyffels has been heading the department since November 2006.
Wyffels was named chair of the drug task force for eight counties, was elected director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, was appointed to the Statewide Radio Board, and was recently appointed as the only police chief or sheriff to represent Minnesota nationally at a FBI Criminal Justice Information System conference.
Hand in hand with the police department’s successes are its challenges, which Wyffels said includes budget cuts, short staffing, the transition into a new building and obtaining equipment.
Because the county plans to build a new jail/law enforcement center, a new police department facility is a key issue – something the city has been working on for five years, Wyffels noted. The city has a law enforcement task force and is also part of a joint jail committee with the county.
“It is critical that we stay on task to address our police facility needs,” Wyffels told the council. “Regardless of our progress, or lack thereof, I must recommend that we need a plan for our new police department.”
The plan, Wyffels said, needs to be clear about the two possible avenues the city may take: building the facility alone or building it jointly with the county.
“I recommend that we set a timeline as to our objective as a city and be clear to the county as to our timeline,” Wyffels said. “The under-current of this political issue still is not clear, and as a result, I think our city needs to be.”
Council members agreed that the planning process is dragging on too long.
“We need to move forward on this,” said Elroy Frank. “This has been five years too long.”
Besides the challenges of building a new facility, the police department also faces a shortage of officers. Wyffels has been working toward a plan to get the proper number of police officers to serve the city.
The department’s goal was to hire five police officers over the next four years to catch up with the city’s expanded service area, caused through annexation, and its continued growth in calls for service.
However, because of state cuts in local government aid, the city held off on hiring two police positions this year. It also cut $20,000 from the police equipment fund in 2008 and an additional $52,000 in police-related line item cuts in 2009.
“I recognized in about October of 2008 the economic storm clouds and have taken steps very early to spend only on absolutely necessary items,” Wyffels said.
That includes holding off on replacing squad cars and making equipment purchases such as computers and video cameras for squad cars.
Police staff has been supportive, too, Wyffels added. They’re making personal sacrifices with work shifts and hours to save on overtime.
Two recent grants through the federal stimulus package will help the department, Wyffels said.
One, known as a Byrne grant, will provide $12,497 to help the local Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program by providing a police officer in local schools and buying supplies.
The program teaches children about gangs, violence, drugs and the risks they involve. It also helps young people in getting to know a police officer in a positive way, Wyffels said.
The council approved Wyffels’ request to obtain the Byrne funding.
The other grant is known as “Cops More” and allows cities and counties to hire back officers that were cut and to add officers they intended to hire but couldn’t because of budget constraints.
The grant pays 100 percent of the officer’s salary and benefits for three years. The city would agree to pay for a fourth year. Wyffels expects to know whether the Cops More application was approved by September.
The police department recently received other grants for equipment – a $12,000 night vision camera, which proved useful in the search mentioned earlier; $3,000 worth of radar equipment through the Safe and Sober program; and $1,100 for bullet proof vests.