While calls for service continue to climb, the Joplin Police Department is seeing its ranks slowly rebuild after pay increases and changes in retirement funding helped attract new officers.
Police Chief Sloan Rowland wrote in the department's annual report released recently that the employment level at the department has improved.
"The Joplin Police Department continues to try and overcome the recruiting and retention problems that are facing law enforcement nationwide," Rowland wrote. "Recent changes made to pay, retirement and recruiting have resulted in increased applicant numbers and is slowly closing the gap of officer shortages."
There are seven vacancies now at the department, the chief said after releasing the report. That is a reduction from the double-digit vacancies the department saw each of the past six years. There were 11 to 15 openings in each of the years from 2014 to 2019, when a high number of resignations and retirements were recorded.
The situation became so critical in the eyes of members of the police union, the Southwest Missouri Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, that they issued a public statement in mid-2017 that an officer shortage being experienced by the department had created a public safety risk. At that time, 52 of the department's 112 officers had left the department over several years.
Almost a year later, as the employment drain continued, now-retired Chief Matt Stewart said that departures, coupled with officers who were off duty for training or medical leave, dropped available officers from 112 to 85.
At the rate the department has been able to attract and hire officers now, Rowland told the Globe this week that he expects to fill the current seven vacancies within six months.
"But to get everybody back to speed and new detectives trained, it's going to be about two years" before the department is back to full manpower, Rowland said. That is because it takes nearly a year to train recruits. They attend a semester of law enforcement academy, have six weeks of in-house training and then spend 16 weeks on the job for training by a more experienced officer.
But the department also continues to see a spike in calls for service and increased crime in some categories.
There were 85,918 calls in 2019, which is up about 1,000 over the past several years, according to the annual report.
The volume of reports taken by the department went up more than 600, from 10,312 to 10,939. Traffic stops rose by more than 3,000, to 13,909 from 10,759.
Officers worked 1,973 traffic crashes last year, seven of them fatal.
Violent crimes — assault, domestic assault, unlawful use of a weapon, homicide, sex crimes and robbery, were up from 1,416 in 2018 to 1,527 in 2019.
The categories where there the number of cases rose were assault, up by 22 cases to total 456; domestic assault, up by 64 cases to 807; unlawful use of a weapon up by 16 to 66; and robbery, up 11 cases to 64.
There were two homicides last year, three the year before. There were less noticeable declines in sex crimes, down 1 case to a total of 132 for the year.
An increase in property crimes was up from 4,267 in 2018 to 4,588 in 2019.
One category of property crime that went down was arson, with six fewer cases than the 23 the year before. Burglary cases were down slightly from 547 to 527.
But larceny rose by 176 cases to 2,136; thefts from vehicles were up 102 cases to 734. Vandalism also climbed from 659 to 712 cases and theft of vehicles rose from 440 to 456.
There were 331 DUI and DWI cases, up from 271 a year earlier. Narcotics cases rose by 164 from 1,500 to 1,664.
Rowland said the numbers go up and down from year to year, making it difficult to draw comparisons. Crime numbers were lower in 2018 than in 2017, he said: "It ebbs and flows; you see it going back and forth from year to year."
But high numbers also correspond to the work officers are doing.
In the 2019 report, crime numbers are up because officers made 3,150 more car stops than the previous years. That is the result of having more officers employed, he said.
"As we put more officers on the street, they are stopping more cars and arresting more drivers. That's a good thing when the officers are being more proactive. It drives your crime numbers up some, but its people you are getting off the streets," Rowland said.
Proactive police work is one of several strategies he intends to put into action to try to bring down certain crime numbers. He also intends to continue to increase recruiting and retention to keep officers trained and out on patrols.
Officers also are to focus on finding and arresting those who are responsible for large numbers of crimes. He said that catching people who commit multiple crimes, such as those involved in strings of property crimes, can make a difference in crime numbers.
"When you got somebody stealing from vehicles, they'll go into an area looking for unlocked cars to steal things and may hit 20 or 30 cars, which is 20 to 30 reports you get," the chief said.
Another strategy is public education.
"There's always an education component of advising citizens and teaching them how to be aware of things and how not to be a victim of crime," Rowland said.
Police use a number of methods to get information to the public about how to protect themselves, including speaking to the news media, distributing information on social media and attaching crime prevention information to city newsletters.