Many were surprised to learn last week that efforts are under way to "redesign" the Memphis Police Department (MPD).
Police Director Toney Armstrong delivered the news in a Memphis City Council budget hearing in his standard, flat, professional monotone that made the announcement seem expected, though many said it was the first they'd heard of the project.
The crux of the announcement was that the MPD's proposed budget for next year includes about 188 fewer police officers than it had last year. The current budget allows Armstrong to have as many as 2,470 officers.
But it's more than simply the number of officers influencing Armstrong's decision to redesign the department. Armstrong had been directed by the city's Chief Administrative Officer, George Little, to revise the department's mission statement — that is, change what kind of services the MPD provides and how it delivers those services. The directive sprang from tight financial times for city leaders who are pressured to maintain services to taxpayers, which get more expensive every year, and pay at least $15 million more next year into the city's ailing pension fund.
"We're at a time of reckoning when we need to decide what level of service we can afford to provide," Little said Tuesday.
Armstrong said the redesign process is moving ahead, but it is far from complete, and he prompted city council members for guidance.
"We are in the process of essentially designing a new police department," Armstrong said. "As the police department stands now, we have [a complement of] 2,470 officers. If we scale back to 2,282 as we've proposed in this budget, there will be a level of services we will not be able to perform. We have to make decisions on what to do and what not to do."
Fewer officers would likely come with a reduced mission. For example, the MPD could choose not to respond to burglar alarms or to fender benders. These ideas have been discussed in the past but were formalized in the city's five-year strategic plan from consulting firm The PFM Group.
That study proposed a raft of changes that included a reduced list of services from the MPD, lowering pay for some police positions, hiring civilians to do office work that is currently performed by higher-wage sworn officers, cutting back on pay for college incentives and length of service, and cutting some holidays and sick days.
Perhaps the biggest move suggested by PFM is to consolidate the office and dispatch services of the MPD and the Memphis Fire Department (MFD). The study said as many as 130 governments have consolidated police and fire to some degree. Some have even cross-trained police officers and firefighters to do both jobs, it said.
But the study suggested the MPD and the MFD maintain independence but share back-office support and dispatchers. Doing so would save $7.6 million over five years with a reduction of 35 employees.
Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, said he read PFM's report but didn't know until Armstrong said it last week that the MPD was up for a redesign.
"The director's got to do what the director's got to do," Williams said. "But what I heard him say to the council was, actually, the council has to decide what level of service do they want to provide to the citizens. If they want a full-service department, they have to increase the complement. If they do not, then the citizens have to be told and have to understand that they aren't going to receive the same services they're used to."
• MPD calls 2012 - 1,637,200
• Radio dispatcher salary - $50,345 (34 percent higher than peer cities)
• MPD portion of city's 2013 budget - 36.6 percent
• MPD/MFD holiday pay 2013 - $11.8 million
• MPD employees - increased by 314 from 2008-2013
Source: PFM Group