(INDIANAPOLIS) - Two burglary suspects bottled up an entire policing district Thursday.
While as many as eight officers narrowed the search for the burglars to a couple of city blocks, the manhunt left the Metro police Northwest District with just four officers to patrol more than 62 square miles, an area nearly the size of the city of Boston.
Staffing levels in the department continue to fall, from a high of 1,722 officers five years ago, to a projected 1,580 officers by year's end.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard's administration has proposed filling the depleted IMPD ranks by hiring officers from other police agencies, a process known as lateral hiring.
Critics are lining up with questions and reservations about the proposal.
"The key is, we're going to be able to maintain an adequate force level that we already have, and do so in a fiscally responsible fashion because we're not going to have to go through the time and expense of a full recruit process," said Marc Lotter, spokesman for Ballard's office.
The mayor unveiled his plan in an open letter to IMPD personnel shortly after he announced that his $1 billion city budget would contain no money to hire a 2013 police recruit class or to give pay raises to the department's rank and file.
"While there is no plan for a recruit class," Ballard wrote, "this budget does authorize the lateral hiring of existing police officers from other jurisdictions to maintain current staffing levels."
Ten years ago, the police department recruited a number of lateral hires, a first-time experiment later deemed a failure because of an excessive number of disciplinary issues among the recently employed transfers.
Jack Sandlin, now a member of the City-County Council's Public Safety Committee, was a high-ranking police commander during that hiring process.
"There are some concerns," said Sandlin. "We need to look at that. The department has done that in the past, and it wasn't successful previously. I think the methodology undertaken to make the selections will be very important."
The department said it will fund the lateral hires with monies freed up by retiring officers.
The Fraternal Order of Police is critical of that strategy, saying it will only guarantee large gaps in future staffing levels.
"We're going to lose coverage for at least another year," said FOP President Sgt. Bill Owensby. "They're not going to have the ability to fund a lateral class late into the year, if at all."
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