Gangs in Lincoln are growing and getting more violent, so Mayor Chris Beutler and Lincoln police are trying to get federal money to fight them.
Police will apply for a Community-Oriented Policing Services grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that would give as much as $250,000 of the $420,000 they say it would take to add two officers for a span of three years, the mayor and police said Thursday morning.
City officials would have to chip in the rest, about $170,000 over those three years.
“We will be able to devote more resources to ensuring gangs do not prosper in Lincoln,” Beutler said at a news conference, flanked by Public Safety Director Tom Casady, Police Chief Jim Peschong and a dozen police officers.
There were three gang-related homicides in Lincoln last year, and police documented an 18 percent increase in gang membership over the past seven months, Peschong said.
Plus, detectives connected several convenience store robberies to gang members employing a level of organization Lincoln police haven’t seen in the past, Casady said.
Four gangs have been battling each other over the past two years, and the intensity of violence has reached previously unseen levels, Casady said.
“They’re aggressive, shooting at each other, hacking each other with machetes, committing armed robberies,” he said.
Dedicating two more officers to fight gangs will allow police to prevent crime rather than investigate it after it happens, Casady said.
For example, they can get more involved with high school students and hopefully prevent them from joining gangs, he said.
So far, gang violence has been pretty much contained to the people involved, but there’s a tipping point at which bystanders start becoming collateral damage, and Casady said he doesn’t want it to get that far.
He pointed to Omaha, where 5-year-old Payton Benson was killed by a stray bullet in January while she was eating breakfast in her home.
“She was a block away,” Casady said after the news conference. “At some point, this kind of stuff spills over and affects people who aren’t directly involved.
"They’re not selling drugs; they’re not gang members. They just happen to end up being collateral splatter of gang violence. That’s what we want to make sure doesn’t gather momentum in Lincoln.”
Federal officials will announce grant winners by Sept. 30, and Casady said he likes Lincoln's chances.
City leaders proved they’re good stewards of public money when they last used a Community-Oriented Policing grant, he said. In 2009, they got $679,136 to pay the salaries of four new police officers’ for three years.
A business group that called on Beutler to beef up the police force in the fall praised the mayor’s Thursday announcement. But Lincoln Independent Business Association members pushed him to use tax money to hire the officers if the city doesn’t win the grant.
Beutler declined to say whether he’d advocate hiring more officers even if the federal money doesn’t come through, saying it wouldn’t be good strategy while grant money’s on the line.
In September, the police union called on city leaders to bolster the number of officers, citing a spike in gang violence and one of the nation’s smallest police forces per capita.
The national average for cities the size of Lincoln is 1.96 officers per 1,000 people. Nebraska's average is 1.80. Lincoln has 1.21 officers per 1,000 people.
LIBA says although Lincoln has grown by 11 square miles and added almost 30,000 people in the past 10 years, its police force has not grown.
Lincoln would need to hire 44 more officers to return to its 1998 peak strength of 1.39 officers per 1,000 residents, LIBA members said in September.
"Every day the local media reports another armed robbery, fatal beating or hit-and-run," LIBA President Coby Mach said at the time. "Lincoln's citizens are assured the situation is not dire; however, Lincoln is a growing community and crime is growing with its population."
Beutler said the relatively small force combined with a low crime rate shows Lincoln police are efficient.