by Heidi L. Everett
At the Jan. 19 St. Joseph city council meeting, Police Chief Dwight Pfannenstein reported officers were dispatched to 3,826 calls in 2020, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year.
In his report, Pfannenstein noted this was the first time in his 20 years of service that bars and restaurants were shut down, schools were on remote learning and large outdoor events and parades were cancelled due to restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“While some would think this would result in peace and quiet in the world of the police, we saw quite the opposite,” he said.
When asked about the types of incidents that may have led to the increase of 523 more calls, Pfannenstein said he couldn’t be sure, but he hopes to know by the end of February, or March at the latest.
The department’s current record-keeping system is tedious, he said.
Currently when officers are dispatched, a running log sheet is handwritten. When officers respond to calls, they input a three-sentence synopsis on their laptops that goes into an electronic queue. Then, the department’s one data person proofs each entry and uploads each entry into the state’s system.
“It’s easier to pull a specific report about a specific incident on a specific date than cumulative information,” Pfannenstein said.
The data person is currently manually compiling 2020 data. This process is problematic for several reasons.
First, the department has 30 days to comply with data requests. If, for example, a member of the media were to ask for 2020 data the first week in January, that data should be available by the first week in February. At the time of this writing, data had only been compiled up to September 2020.
In addition, the department only has one person authorized to release information. When that individual is out of the office, as was the case for much of November and December 2020, records are closed and not available.
Finally, data is essential to properly manage department resources.
“The problem we have is while the city grows in size and the calls grow in size, the record system hasn’t grown so far,” Pfannenstein said. “We have not added anything to our record system since 2003.”
Anecdotally, Pfannenstein can point to three populations that demand police response.
One of those is the college student population.
“We know we are unique because we have the two colleges within range that towns of similar size do not have,” Pfannenstein said. “That generally does add to our call load.”
Pfannenstein said the department didn’t see any decrease in student activity even with schools and bars being shut down.
“They still had house parties,” he said. “16- to 25-year -olds generally don’t immediately feel the threat of COVID like older people do. They carry on their daily activities because they don’t feel that same mortality.”
St. Joseph also has the addition of two assisted-living facilities, WoodCrest of Country Manor and Serenity Place. With these facilities, medical calls go up, he said.
Community growth also contributes to increased call volume.
“We love growth. Growth is good for any city,” he said. “But anytime our infrastructure grows, there’s more car accidents. More housing divisions means more cars on the road.”
While these characteristics of St. Joseph likely added to police call volume in 2020, until the data is available it’s unclear for the department, city officials and residents how shelter-in-place orders and other aspects of the COVID era may have affected safety in the community.
Pfannenstein acknowledges this.
“I can’t tell you if we’ve had more domestic assaults,” he said, “but we’re not falling in numbers.”