Preliminary Hattiesburg Police command status statistics indicate that prior to Chief Anthony L. Parker taking office in August 2015, crime in the city was up 12 percent compared to 2014. From August to December of last year, crime dropped 8 points under Parker’s command. Parker attributes this apparent trend to a departmental emphasis on police visibility and engagement in Hattiesburg communities.
Through the Hattiesburg Police Department’s focus on active community engagement and crime prevention, officer workloads have become more burdensome. According to HPD records, officers responded on scene to over 9,000 dispatch calls in December alone.
In order to address the workload issue and maintain community involvement, Parker has been making rounds to meet and introduce himself to various community organizations and announce his top priority for HPD, bolstering the ranks.
“Our officers stay real busy,” Parker said. “I know that people want them to stand there and talk to them a lot, but they will be going from one call to another — that’s why I said I need to get my numbers up. That’s my main focus right now.”
Parker said his department is trying to overcome a cycle hindering an increase in officer ranks. A high call volume necessitates a larger staff to decrease the burden on individual officers, but with current staffers stretched thin, some individuals opt to transfer to departments with competitive pay and workloads similar to what he is trying to achieve.
“We have such good officers and the surrounding communities have a lot less workload, and [HPD officers] can go make exactly as much money as they’re making here,” Parker said.
Jessica Lightfoot, president of the Kamper Avenues Neighborhood Association, hosted a community meeting with Parker during which he discussed HPD priorities and residents’ concerns.
Lightfoot said she thinks increasing police ranks is important to reducing crime in the Hattiesburg community because more cops means more patrols.“The two main things to prevent crime from occurring are, one, police patrols and, two, neighbors reporting criminal and suspicious activity,” she said.
HPD Lieutenant Jon Traxler also spoke during the meeting and said though the dispatch call rates can be high, that should not dissuade residents from reporting suspicious activity.
“I’d rather you call us and find out that it’s a cousin that nobody knew about that came into town to visit than not get that call and it wasn’t the cousin it was somebody burglarizing the house,” Traxler said. “So please call us, because if we don’t get the call, we don’t know.”
Lightfoot said for her neighborhood, asking for community vigilance can be a tall order. She said the Kamper Avenues neighborhood has rental property rate of 80 percent, and civic responsibility is not a priority for many tenants.
“A lot of them are students and they don’t take care of the property like the homeowners do,” she said.
Parker said increased ranks would also allow more flexibility for HPD. He said a number of programs are in the works, including creating “net team” units dedicated to specific neighborhoods and an interdiction unit dedicated to policing interstate traffic. These programs however, are dependent on recruiting more officers.
“We have K-9 units that [are] basically doing nothing, so I want to implement an interdiction unit,” Parker said. “The city of Hattiesburg has a part of an interstate running through it here, and we need to be working that interstate.”
Traxler said HPD currently has four dogs working and is training more for the program.
“The others are still in training, and once they get the certification, then we’ll have the officer go through the certification as well to get matched with a canine,” he said
Currently, HPD staffs 96 officers, though one is on military assignment. Police academy classes started Feb. 1 for 16 registered recruits, 12 of whom made it through the first day. With the department slated for 125 officers, Parker is already working toward another class before the end of the year.
“If I can get up to 125, I’m going to try to ask the city council to let me go up to 140 officers,” Parker said. “That’s what my target is right now.”
Through a new application processes and an active recruitment, Parker said hitting his number is doable.
“We’re trying to go to online applications so we can expand our employment pool. We’ve started a recruitment team to go to colleges and junior colleges to recruit more qualified individuals,” he said. “I think we’re going to be successful in increasing our numbers.”