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Helmut Schmidt, Published December 28 2008

Police want more officers, new station

Fargo may be one of the safest cities around for its size, Police Chief Keith Ternes says, but for his department to keep that security level high, the city should hire more officers and build a substation to cover growth in the south and southwest.

Ternes said 10 to 12 more officers would allow the department to be proactive in fighting crime, and a substation would cut response times, save costs and give the department needed room.

But the costs of the two initiatives are daunting.

Hiring and training each officer costs $70,000 to $80,000 a year, and the price tag of a substation for 30 to 40 officers and support staff could hit the $10 million mark.

Those costs must be balanced against other needs, so “now is the time to have these discussions,” Ternes said.

“To wake up five years from now and say we need a new facility tomorrow is just bad planning.”

Fargo has an authorized police force of 134 officers. Three officers were added in 2008, Ternes said, but four will be lost to military duty in January or February, leaving the department at the status quo.

Fargo’s police force is small by national standards, he said. Cities often have two officers for every 1,000 residents. By that standard, Fargo, with a population of 93,000, should have more than 180 officers, he said. Instead, the ratio is about 1.4 officers per 1,000 people, a “bare minimum,” he said.

Ternes wants the force to grow to 145 officers, though he said costs make that unlikely in one year.

Fargo’s good fortune is that, “Violent crime is almost nonexistent” compared to other urban areas, he said. Fargo’s problems are property crimes, such as theft, many of which could be prevented by residents locking doors to houses and cars, he said.

Slow response

A major need is a second police station, Ternes said.

Response times to the city’s south and southwest from the downtown station for nonemergency calls are 30 to 40 minutes – 10 to 12 minutes for emergencies, he said.

The department is also “bursting at the seams” in its downtown facility, he said. Moving 30 to 40 officers to a southside facility would improve efficiency and ease space pressures, he said.

“I’d love to see a southside facility sometime over the next three to five years,” Ternes said.

Residents in the city’s southwest like the idea.

“I don’t think it’s ever a bad idea” to have more police, said Jodi Arneson, co-owner of LakeMode Liquors in the Osgood area. “I think it’s something the city should look at. It’s all about safety.”

“I wouldn’t mind having a substation closer,” said Michelle Albrecht, who lives near the Osgood Hornbacher’s store.

She said she’s heard of break-ins in the area and said, “I definitely wouldn’t mind” having more police around.

City officials support the initiatives, but worry about having the funds available.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said police needs must be balanced against costs for flood protection, bringing in Missouri River water and a new City Hall. The health of the economy is also key, he said.

“It needs to be done,” Walaker said. “It’s pretty much a wait-and-see game. If the economy continues to be good in 2009, we’ll certainly consider it.”

City Commissioner David Piepkorn likes the idea of a new station to cut response times in the city’s growth areas, and to save money on officer time and fuel.

Piepkorn said setting aside money for three to five years for a new substation would be reasonable.

“I think you always want to be ahead of the curve, not reacting,” on police numbers, Piepkorn said.

That is Ternes’ point, too.

While the city doesn’t have drug dealers on the street corners and violent gangs, if those groups get a foothold, Ternes said it may not be possible to regain the current level of safety.

“I don’t think it would take long for us to find a community that in hindsight would like a do-over” on its decision to hold off on bolstering its police force, he said. “Once they lost that level of safety or level of comfort, they’re just chasing their tails. …

“The key is not to become complacent,” Ternes said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583