Police association says city leaders "disregard" needs of department

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) - Thursday morning, Roanoke City officials announced Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones had officially notified the city of his plans to retire. Not long after, the Roanoke City Police Association released a statement in which they said the City Manager and City Council have been “either unwilling, ineffectual, or simply negligent" in addressing their concerns.

WDBJ7 photo

This stems in part from interviews WDBJ7 conducted earlier this month with Chief Tim Jones and City Manager Bob Cowell regarding gun violence in the city.

August 6, WDBJ7 interviewed Chief Jones at a press event promoting gun safety ahead of National Night Out. WDBJ7 presented the Chief with the statistics provided by his department via the Freedom of Information Act. WDBJ7 asked the chief how he would rate his department's ability to not only prevent but also respond to and solve the gun violence in Roanoke.

Chief Jones responded:
"We work as diligently as we can. I’ve got just dedicated individuals, both in patrol and in criminal investigations. Just in the last ten days, 3 homicide suspects were convicted. One at the federal level and two at the state and local level. So the criminal prosecutions by detectives and Commonwealth’s Attorneys, they work tirelessly to bring people to justice. I just wish I had more people so that we could work harder. And unfortunately, the numbers that we are seeing – I need more detectives. Because people will not quit harming one another.”

WDBJ7: Is that the solution? More manpower, in your eyes? Is that where you find the solution?

JONES: Well, research shows that the presence of police officers in the community is a deterrent. Some will argue that point. Some will argue that tougher sanctions on firearms will make violence stop. It's kind of the chicken-versus-the-egg equation dependent upon which perspective you want to take."

We followed up with the Chief via email regarding his need for more detectives.

"The working strength of the agency for sworn personnel is at 215 and our allocated strength is 268," Jones said. "My folks are working 12-hour shifts and virtually one call to another most shifts. There is very little down time and yet we continue to engage the community, read to kids, visit nursing homes, develop programs as needed to respond to the needs of businesses, schools, faith-based needs, etc. And I won't even go in to the increased time committed to the mental health arena in Roanoke, homeless or drug circumstances."

At this time, WDBJ7 had also arranged an interview with City Manager Bob Cowell regarding statistics on gun violence in the city.

Prior to our interview, and after seeing our story with the Chief, Cowell emailed WDJB7, with a different interpretation of the numbers the Chief was referencing, writing in part:

"...it is critical to clarify that when the Chief refers to "allocated strength" this is the funded level - meaning he has been funded 268 positions. Currently, of this number there are about 15 actual vacancies (which are positions being filled with the upcoming recruit academies). The discrepancy with the 215 number is due to the Chief not accounting for officers assigned that are completing their Field Training (that is recent graduates of the academy) and those temporarily out of service for routine reasons (workers comp injuries, maternity leave, etc)."

He went on to say a few years ago, the city went from one recruit academy class per year to two to hire more officers. Plus, he said, the Chief has been authorized to hire above the vacancy number if necessary.

"In other words," he wrote, "if we are forming a recruit class to replace those 15 vacancies mentioned and we happen to have 20 qualified candidates then the Chief is authorized to hire 20 into the academy."

During our interview, Cowell reiterated the actual vacancies of the department were between 11 and 15, which he said were typical of a department this size.

"And those are vacancies which are true vacancies, meaning we don't have anyone assigned to those positions," he said. "And that's how we base the size of the recruitment academy that comes in. So we've got to anticipate to have 15 vacancies, we try to get at least 15 people in the academy so we can move them through and fill those vacancies. In addition to those 15 vacancies, you always have folks who are out on, temporarily, on an injury or maternity leave or something like that. So there's some number that are in that. The biggest number though is when folks graduate out of the academy, so we just graduated 10 individuals out of the academy. When they get graduated out of that, they go into their field training. Which means they're out in the field and they're conducting police business as sworn officers but they're doing it under supervision, and the chief doesn't count those in those numbers. So really the number is about 11 to 15 true vacancies that we have in that regard and stuff, and that is pretty typical. Even though we fill those, we have people retiring and people leaving for a variety of reasons. If we ever saw that number mushroom to where there truly is a certain number of individuals that those positions aren't filled, we'd have to take different action. However authorizing positions that still can't be filled is not the solution, it really is ramping up our recruitment effort."

Still, Cowell admitted in the August 8 interview that this department and others struggle to find recruits these days and knows officers are working to their max.

"It is definitely a stressful environment and I would say we are expecting them to work to the absolute maximum of what's possible," he said. "And the reason I say that is because we ask that of firefighters of the folks on street crews, the guys that pick up the trash. And that's really a result of the fact that over the last decade, all cities have had to keep their work forces to a minimum."

Cowell reiterated that he had 100-percent confidence in the Chief and the entire police department.

Thursday August 22, WDBJ7 was notified Chief Jones intended to retire, effective February 1, 2020. We reached out to the Chief for an interview, but he were told he was unavailable until Friday.

Shortly thereafter, WDBJ7 also received a statement from Christopher Levering, President of the Roanoke City Police Association.

Levering writes Mr. Cowell’s numbers are not incorrect but that he interprets them differently than the association. Levering said Cowell "does not include officers who are not affective to the department’s objectives."

He goes on to say the agency is currently 43 officers below staffing levels; 39 of them are considered part of the patrol division. By his count, Levering says while the department as a whole is about 16 percent below capacity, the patrol division is operating at 32 percent below capacity.

He goes on to say they don’t feel like Cowell’s count accurately depicts the deficit the department faces.

Levering said Cowell and City Council “Seem as though they do not value or support the Police Department’s and Police Association’s efforts to achieve appropriately compensated staffing levels sufficient to properly serve and ensure the safety of the citizens of the City of Roanoke.”

Levering writes if the current trend continues, based on data from a pay study commissioned by the association and completed by Franck Analytics, the Roanoke Police Department can expect to lose an additional 15 officers by the end of the year.

Levering notes at the end of the letter that the association has presented this problem and “several potential solutions” to the City Manager and City Council and feels the association has continuously been disregarded. He goes on to state they feel both parties have been “either unwilling, ineffectual, or simply negligent in addressing these concerns.” He ends the letter calling on Cowell and City Council to address “the retention and pay issues” within the agency.”

WDBJ7 reached out to Levering for an interview request on the topic after receiving the notice. Members of the association were unavailable Thursday but that they might be available Friday.

WDBJ7 also asked City Manager Bob Cowell about the statement during a previously-scheduled interview about the Chief's retirement.

Cowell said he had not seen the letter but was more than happy to engage with the association in further discussion. He said he and council are concerned with adequate compensation of every employee.

"And to characterize otherwise is just disingenuous," he said. "It's not at all my perception, nor is it's the council's approach as we go along."

Cowell said he only met with the Association twice earlier this year, before they presented concerns at City Council in May.

“I will remind the association that decisions regarding pay are not based by council. They’re based by management. And of course would welcome continuation of that discussion but again I haven’t seen the letter.”

But Cowell said he remains open to having more meetings to talk about the issues.

"If they wish to have those discussions further, then those are opportunities for us to talk. But not in the way in which they've gone about it thus far...I'm not going to have the discussion in the newspaper or in the media or among the meetings of the council."

WDBJ7 provided Cowell with a copy of the association's letter. You can read the Association's full statement attached to this message.

Copyright 2019/WDBJ7. All rights reserved.