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Marion Police chief discusses his strategic five-year plan for the police department

Marion Police Chief Joe McHale talks to water department general manager Todd Steigerwaldt before a city department head staff meeting at City Hall in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. McHale has made extensive changes in his first year as chief of the department. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Marion Police Chief Joe McHale talks to water department general manager Todd Steigerwaldt before a city department head staff meeting at City Hall in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. McHale has made extensive changes in his first year as chief of the department. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Marion Police Chief Joseph McHale presented a five-year strategic plan last week during a Marion City Council work session.

McHale, who was sworn in as the city’s chief on Dec. 15, 2016, has made several changes to the department’s operations, including establishing a beat structure — the city’s first — and partnering with the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center on criminal intelligence and data-driven policing.

Many of the goals outlined in his plan include upgrading technology, restructuring the department, reorganizing staff and better prioritizing service calls and officer response.

Most notable was McHale’s contention that the city needs to add 10 sworn officers and 12 civilian employees to its police department in the next five years to keep up with a growing population and more smartly deploy its resources.

Q: Give us an overview of the department’s five-year plan.

A: There’s a lot of pieces to that question. Obviously, we want to be working with the community. ...

There’s a lot of growth occurring in Marion and with that comes how are we using data? How are we partnering with research partners? And what are we doing to take this agency to the next level?

This is very much a service organization and as this community grows, we’re going to have to triage and assess the things that we’re doing now, and maybe three to five years from now that we might not be able to do or deliver based on our current staffing level.

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There are about 500 action items listed in our plan for the next five years ... but if I had to boil it down to a few main points it would be staggered growth, enhanced community involvement, data sharing and utilization, and professional 911 delivery.

Q: What is your biggest area of concern for the next five years?

A: My biggest concern right now for my department and this region is the 911 communications center’s capacity.

We’re dealing with situations in our 911 centers where technology has overridden procedures and staffing. We’re way, way behind where we need to be. So, one of the biggest focuses of that five-year plan is to stabilize our communications center and build it in partnership with our fire department.

Q: What are some specific concerns you have regarding the 911 center?

A: Right now, 70 percent of the time, I’ve got one person in the 911 communications center handling calls and dispatching resources.

Think about that for a second.

If two people call in emergencies at the same time, whose call does that operator answer first? And once the operator answers both calls, how do they then begin to dispatch both calls?

And, even if we had two people in there, I need there to be supervision in there, I need quality control and I need oversight to make sure we’re doing what we need to be doing in dispatch.

We want to segregate the intake of calls from the actual dispatch itself. For example, you call 911 and the operator answers and takes the emergency information. Meanwhile that call taker is typing that call in, and in real time the dispatcher is seeing that information on the screen and can immediately begin to dispatch emergency services.

Q: In your strategic plan, you talk about the need for 10 more officers. Can you talk about your staffing concerns?

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A: Adding 10 officers would keep our shift minimums the same, but instead of that minimum including the supervisor, it would be the minimum plus a supervisor. And that’s a big deal for me. We need the ability to handle two primary emergency calls with a supervisor available at the same time.

In a law enforcement capacity, the leadership, the mentoring and the oversight of law enforcement especially in this day and age is critical. It’s critical that the supervisors are available during the shift to be free, to float, to supervise and manage.

I can’t have my supervisors running from call to call like a patrol officer. That’s not their job. Their job is quality control and supervision. That’s not to say they won’t answer calls when needed or when it’s an emergency, but that can’t be the majority of what they’re doing, and right now that’s what they spend most of their shifts doing.

Q: Your plan also discusses the use of data to focus enforcement and resources. How can data help address community issues?

A: As law enforcement administrators, you have to have a plan and a vision for what are the most pressing issues for your agency.

What are your crime problems? Who are your main crime drivers? And how do you effectively deal with those individuals?

Through smarter utilization of the data that we currently hold — maybe working better with the health department and different agencies to look at data that we could all share and utilize in a prevention model — would be absolutely huge for us to get ahead of the curve.

If we can direct resources and assistance to the people who need it rather than just sending officers out to patrol with no real game plan or targeted approach, all of that comes down to data. ...

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Q: Marion is a fast-growing community. What are your concerns when it comes to keeping up with that growth?

A: The growth that’s going to come is going to be noticeable sooner rather than later. Look around, there are hotels going up and new housing developments in the works. ...

And, as that growth continues, and more and more people come to Marion either to live or to visit, the traffic coming through town that we’re going to have to manage and the issues that come along with more people are going to be huge.

We’re going to need to make sure the parking lots and the hotels are safe. We’re going to have to deal with not only the existing problems in the community, but also the ones that come in with the visitors. ...

Q: What are some of the challenges the department is facing?

A: I think one of the biggest difficulties this department is currently facing is me and my expectations. I’m not aiming to be funny, but the expectations that I have as the chief and the staff places upon me are high.

Look at our mission statement — we want to be one of the best law enforcement agencies in the United States, and especially in this region. We want to set the bar very high. We want to use intelligence, we want to use data, we want to make sure that our personnel are engaged and trained, and we want to develop a sense of pride.

So I think one of the biggest challenges for me is to assimilate to a smaller organization — that’s been a huge learning curve for me.

Coming from an agency that had 1,450 sworn officers and 700 civilian employees, to a smaller agency where these guys wear so many different hats and there are significant limitations on the department’s capacity, I’m trying to adjust and reconfigure my management style, if that makes sense.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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