Focus on investigationsFairfield Police Chief says department spends more time solving crimes, less on patrol
The Fairfield Police Department has changed how it does business in the past three years.
In the summer of 2014, the department decided to spend less time on patrol and more time investigating major crimes.
Fairfield Police Chief David Thomas said officers examined crime statistics and asked themselves, “What is the bigger priority?”
“We decided investigating cases where someone has been seriously assaulted or has lost a lot of money have to be a higher priority than barking dogs,” he said.
Thomas said he feels officers are spending their time more efficiently than before and that the department has been able to put more resources toward solving the most serious criminal cases such as sexual assault.
“We don’t want to leave a sexual assault case to check on a parking complaint,” he said. “We want to be dedicated to that case until it’s done.”
The number of sexual assaults was at an eight-year high in 2016 when 18 cases were reported. In the seven years before, the average had been between nine and 10.
Thomas said a number of sexual assault victims came forward in 2016. He said his officers are well trained in investigating sexual assault, a crime that is difficult to prevent since it happens behind closed doors.
“There’s no way to actively patrol for it,” he said.
Thomas spoke about those and many other crime statistics during Monday’s city council meeting. All told, he said the crime rate appears to be fairly steady during the past eight years. The number of calls the police receive is trending up, however, a stat Thomas does not mind.
“We want people to call because it means our community is getting involved,” he said. “If something looks like criminal activity, people will call us. Some criminals complain that people are calling the cops on them all the time.”
The number of calls the department fielded hovered between 9,200 and 10,200 for several years until it shot up to 11,253 in 2014. It increased even more the following year to about 12,000, then fell slightly to about 11,600 in 2016, still much higher than its historic mean.
Thomas said the increase in calls has happened despite the drop in animal calls since 2014. That year, the department announced it would no longer capture loose dogs or free bats from homes, non-law enforcement tasks that were bogging down its officers and taking time away from pressing investigations.
“People have learned that we’re not responding to dogs and bats anymore, but we’re still quite busy with other calls,” Thomas said.
In big cities, some officers would patrol exclusively while others would spend all their time investigating. Fairfield’s police department is small enough it can’t afford that.
The department has 14 full-time officers, one of which is a full-time investigator. The rest have to split their time between patrol and following up criminal reports.
Thomas said officers are sometimes juggling 10 cases at once, each of which requires them to collect evidence and interview witnesses.
The department realized a few years ago it needed more officers who could investigate crime scenes, a special skill held by only two of its officers, the lieutenant and the captain. Two former investigators from Van Buren County offered to train the department’s four sergeants in crime scene investigation.
The program allowed Fairfield to triple the number of officers qualified to investigate crime scenes without hiring another employee.
“Those instructors are both at the top of their field, and they saved us a bunch of money,” Thomas said.
Thomas remarked on a few trends he saw in the crime data. Assaults had been trending down from 106 in 2010 to 75 in 2015, but suddenly shot back up to 94 last year.
“When I started, all assaults were people hitting each other. They didn’t bring a knife to a fight,” he said. “Now we work numerous knife assaults. We’re also seeing more baseball bats brought to fights.”
Drug cases have been rising during the past five years from the low 60s to 87 last year. Thomas said drug use is often related to other crimes involving bodily-injury.
“We’ve seen more assaults with the drug trade,” he said. “Instead of threatening people, they’ll come after them with a knife or a bat if they don’t pay off their drug debt.”
Thomas mentioned that a number of burglaries are committed to get money for drugs.
Since drug users are often crime victims, getting them to cooperate with an investigation can be difficult.
“We tell our officers that the person you arrest one week might be a victim the next,” Thomas said. “We tell those people that we’re going to work as hard for you as we would any other person. We don’t hold it personally against you, because we believe nobody should be the victim of assault.”
The police have found success collecting information from drug users when they make it clear at the beginning they are investigating an assault.
“They will give us a lot more details that way,” Thomas. “They won’t tell us anything if we tell them we’re doing a drug investigation.”