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The Economy and Law Enforcement

By Peter Biello


Wilmington, NC – If you think filling one tank is expensive, try filling forty or more. That's the task police departments and sheriff's offices around the region face. Local law enforcement agencies are now brainstorming on how to cope with high gas prices. A closer look reveals the price of gas isn't the only way today's economy is changing how crime is fought.

"I hope that we see a turn around before long," says Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram. "There's a lot of people out there really in tough situations right now."

Ingram says with the recent economic downturn, he's seen an increase in property crime. But thieves aren't just sticking to reliable favorites, like small electronics or copper pipes. Now they're even stealing air conditioners.

"Just look at the newer models and they can be easily taken off of a home. People are looking for anything they can steal and sell quickly for cash."

To fight property theft, Ingram's office has to burn expensive gas to patrol the county. And to save money to pay for that gas, Ingram is rearranging shifts to keep more employees out of the office an extra day each week. He's even sending emails instead of making copies.

And while he's saving paper he's also saving bullets. The wars overseas have cut into the country's ammunition supply, so it's taking longer to fill the sheriff's orders.

"Six months or better sometimes," he says. "I think we've waited as long as eight months. And used to be we could have it in thirty days."

That's not to say Brunswick County deputies carry unloaded guns, but they aren't participating in SWAT Team contests either. Deputies burn through thousands of rounds preparing for these contests, but with the ammunition shortage, the sheriff's office simply can not afford to compete.

These contests can also be considered training, and Fred Wilson with the National Sheriff's Association says exercises like these are often the first to be cut.

"Because training often equals travel, time off, you know you have to send a body, or two bodies, or three bodies, and therefore what they normally do is not covered," Wilson says. "So instead of having enhancement training, you have only the mandatory training that's required."

Wilson says he's also noticed a drop in federal funding for local law enforcement agencies. He attributes that loss in part to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

"You've taken an entirely new department and carved it out of the Department of Justice and a great deal of the crime fighting funding has gone that way."

In Wilmington, Police Chief Ralph Evangelous says his department buys gas futures and hasn't had to pay four dollars a gallon yet. But that hasn't stopped him from thinking of ways to save fuel, like making officers walk more and drive less, for example.

"Throughout the city everyone's expected to get out of the car, we hope, for an hour a day, if the call load allows us to do that. Sometimes we don't get out at all, because we're out straight, we're busy."

Evangelous is also considering putting two officers in each car, but isn't happy about what that will do to police visibility around the city. Last year the Wilmington Police Department went over budget and spent $655,000 on gas.

In Pender County, Sheriff Carson Smith says his office has a quarter-million dollars set aside for gas. That's way up from last year.

"You're talking almost 900 square miles in Pender County, we've got five deputies on at any given time. They do a lot of traveling. They do a whole lot of traveling. And because we have to get so many miles out of these cars, the bigger engines seem to be less maintenance."

Smith, Sheriff Ingram in Brunswick County and Chief Evangelous in Wilmington all have their sights set on more efficient vehicles, and all three say it will take years before the biggest gas guzzlers are phased out.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please e-mail us, we'd like to hear from you. news@whqr.org.