L AFAYETTE — The Police Department wants to install crime cameras in troubled neighborhoods throughout the city, allowing officers to monitor activity from headquarters and on their laptop computers.
The department’s proposed budget for next fiscal year sets aside $700,000 for the cameras.
The plan is to install about 50 cameras in selected neighborhoods for surveillance of street activity, Police Chief Jim Craft said at a city-parish budget hearing on Tuesday that also delved into a proposal to raise stagnant police pay.
The police chief said he views the cameras as a way to effectively extend the reach of his officers and give them the ability to cover more ground through the use of technology.
“A lot of communities now have cameras just about everywhere,” Craft said. “ We look at it as force multiplier.”
The Police Department already has crime cameras in downtown Lafayette, but the proposal is to greatly expand the program with a push into residential areas.
“We don’t have any cameras in neighborhoods at this time,” Craft said.
Craft said he expects the cameras to be in place by 2016, assuming council approval.
Council members had few questions about the proposal.
Outside of repairs to the main police headquarters on University Avenue, the $700,000 crime camera program is the largest proposed capital expense for the department, followed by a request for $500,000 to buy property for new Police Precinct 1.
Craft said the city is eyeing a parcel near the Four Corners area at the intersection of University Avenue and Cameron Street.
Precinct 1 is now housed at the Clifton Chenier Center on Willow Street in space shared with other agencies.
“The Police Department is kind of around the back and out of site,” Craft said.
The proposal for a new Precinct 1 site comes after the department opened a new Precinct 4 building on Moss Street earlier this year.
“We are in a three-year plan to build out the precincts,” Craft said.
The proposed budget for next year also sets aside $782,000 for pay raises, bringing starting pay up to $2,850 a month.
But the local police union on Tuesday floated an alternative $1.4 million pay plan that would bring starting salaries up to $2,916 a month and offer more generous pay bumps up through the ranks.
Cpl. Dorian Brabham, president of the Police Association of Lafayette, said the union’s plan is needed to make up for years of stagnant pay.
The final figure for the police pay plan is still in play and could change before the final budget adoption this year.
“There is really no right answer. It’s what you can do with available funds,” said City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley.
Craft said he would favor a compromise between the administration’s current proposed pay plan for police and the union’s most recent proposal.
The chief said that, whatever the outcome, his department needs a better starting salary and better pay throughout the department to attract and keep officers.
“When we go out and try to recruit people, that’s when it becomes difficult,” Craft said.
The police department has 13 officer vacancies and two civilian vacancies out of its authorized strength of 257, according to figures from Craft.
“This in turn has caused a reduction in the services we offer the public,” Craft said.
Officers are leaving for better pay elsewhere, he said, noting that five officers resigned in July and another two have announced plans to leave next month.
The only major proposed cut in the department’s budget came from City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who moved to strike about $500,000 the department spends on overtime to pay for a special security detail to keep tabs on the busy weekend bar scene downtown.
Boudreaux advocated using the money to help fill the gap between the administration’s proposed police pay plan and the one sought by the police union, arguing he would rather see the $500,000 used for services city-wide rather than focused on a few blocks downtown.
Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents the downtown area, opposed the cut.
A final vote on the issue will come later this year as the council prepares for final adoption of the budget.
Paying for the downtown security detail has long been an issue.
The City-Parish Parish Council in 2009 approved a security fee in an effort to force bars to share in the increasing expense of special police details.
The fee ranged from $150 to $5,000 a month per bar, depending on capacity, but the council in 2012 suspended the bar levy pending the outcome of a federal lawsuit filed by downtown bar owners alleging the fee amounts to an unconstitutional tax imposed without their consent.
The lawsuit is still active. In the meantime, city-parish government has been footing the bill.
Craft said he is reluctant to abandon the dedicated detail because without it weekend disturbances downtown could require the department to pull too many patrol officers from other areas of the city.
“Every 90 days, we review that assignment to determine if we can reduce staffing,” Craft said. “We still see the crowds down there. We still see the fights and weapons.”
The City-Parish Council is reviewing City-Parish President Joey Durel’s proposed budget line by line in a series of public hearings over the next few weeks.
The proposed budget totals $604.5 million, but the bulk of that is the city-owned utilities system and restricted tax money the council has little control over.
The council’s discussions focus mainly on the $113 million in the city and parish general funds.