By Dave Russell
The Sylva Police Department bucked the 2020 trend. While a pandemic slowed many businesses, the folks in the policing business didn’t get a break.
Calls for service and officer actions that required logging into the computer system increased from 8,734 in 2019 to 13,810 in 2020, an increase of 58 percent. Calls have risen 107 percent since 2016.
Calls over the years have climbed steadily, according to Chief Chris Hatton.
There were 6,263 calls in 2016, 6,537 in 2017, 7,516 in 2018.
“This year reports of actual statute violations are down, but people are calling us a lot more for a variety of other reasons,” he said.
The numbers don’t include man hours on other events, such as the 2020 wave of Black Lives Matter protests and counterprotests or funeral escorts.
“Many time-consuming responsibilities don’t really show up in the numbers, such as protests,” Hatton said. “We spend days and days preparing for those type of events.”
Overdoses went up 50 percent this year, from 12 to 18 so far.
“We deal with a lot of drug addiction and mental illness,” he said. “It’s normal for us to get a call to deal with folks acting erratically. According to our records, SPD has been involved in 85 involuntary commitments in 2020.”
About 70 percent of crimes in the town are linked to drug abuse in some form, from breaking and entering to unresponsive people passed out in cars.
“As far as our actual crime goes, there’s an absolute correlation with drugs, undeniably so,” he said. “Primarily it’s fentanyl, meth and heroin. Everybody thinks the police focus on marijuana, but we don’t. We focus on the more destructive drugs, but we do find marijuana quite a bit when we’re looking for other drugs.”
There is some good news, however.
Less traffic means fewer accidents. Wrecks are down 28 percent from last year, 534 to a projected 385.
Arrests are down 24 percent from last year, 406 to 308 (projected)
Domestic violence incidents are about the same from last year at 71 incidents.
“Overall, reports of actual crimes are down, but our calls for service are way up,” Hatton said. “So that means the calls we responded to this year were for many various reasons that weren’t actual violations of general statute.”
The department responded to more than 150 various call types, Hatton said.
“We’ve seen everything from illegal parking violations and all the way up to serious assaults and rape,” he said.
Calls for service do not necessarily have to come from 911 calls to the dispatch center.
“It’s also officer-initiated things,” Hatton said. “If an officer is driving around on nightshift and they see potential criminal activity and they decide to investigate, that is considered an action and is included in our calls for service statistics.”
Reports of suspicious vehicles and people have increased, he said.
“Those calls are when someone in the general public see someone who’s doing something potentially dangerous or they believe the person is involved in a crime,” Hatton said.
The department is down one officer at this time.
“We’ve got the position advertised online, and we’ve got several applications already,” he said. “Last year we were 30 percent down at one point. We have the same staffing level as in 2016 despite the 107 percent increase in workload. This means the officers we have are working harder than ever.”
Hatton is seeking grant funds to add some manpower.
“Being part of the town’s budget meetings, I know firsthand there is no extra money just laying around for more police officers,” he said.
Officers aren’t the only monetary issue.
The Dodge Chargers that SPD and many other law enforcement agencies employ begin to have costly mechanical problems at about 80,000 miles, he said.
Last budget cycle the department added two new Dodge Durangos to the fleet.
“They’re a little more expensive at purchase, but we believe they will last longer,” Hatton said. “The Chargers are very affordable, but I believe SUVs are much more suitable for the rigors of law enforcement.”