Improving public safety will be among the city’s highest priorities in the coming year, the Casper City Council decided during a two-day strategic planning workshop Tuesday and Wednesday at the Casper Events Center.
The four-hour meetings were intended to help the Council set high-level objectives for the city. A moderator led the first session to help council members stay on track as they discussed various topics, such as the budget and public engagement.
Public safety was quickly identified as a top concern.
Council members identified multiple goals, such as increasing protection for students at schools, developing plans for a new police station, revising the infraction policy for alcohol vendors and improving police vacancy and retention rates.
“If somebody goes in [a Casper school] and shoots my grandson and we haven’t even addressed it, then why I am here?” asked Councilman Dallas Laird.
Student safety and gun control have been widely discussed since a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and staff member dead on Feb. 14.
Laird said there needs to be a strong police presence at all city schools.
Mayor Ray Pacheco explained that there are already resource officers who handle school safety but said the Council could discuss increasing the number with the police department.
“We’ve had a police department in turmoil…” added Laird. “We haven’t been on top of public safety.”
Laird was referring to a tumultuous period last spring when former Police Chief Jim Wetzel was dismissed one month after a survey conducted by the Casper Fraternal Order of Police found that there was a toxic work environment inside the department.
Officials have repeatedly refused to provide a reason for Wetzel’s departure. The city appointed Keith McPheeters as the new chief in December.
Vice Mayor Charlie Powell agreed that public safety should be a priority, but he objected to Laird’s statement that it hasn’t always been a top concern for the Council.
“We have not been asleep at the wheel,” said Powell, adding that council members authorized an external review to be conducted about the police department last year and are now working alongside police to implement the suggested changes.
Specific crime rates or statistics in Casper were not mentioned during the meeting.
New police station?
Replacing the police station was also discussed during the workshop. The Council will start identifying potential locations and funding sources for a new station this year.
The department moved into its current headquarters on David Street in 1976, but the building is too small to meet current needs, former Police Chief Jim Wetzel explained last spring.
Fire Station 1 will also likely need to be replaced within the next few years, said Councilman Bob Hopkins.
Councilman Chris Walsh, a former Casper police chief, suggested that the police and fire stations could possibly be combined into one new complex.
The city should also consider unfreezing city wages if public safety is going to be a touchstone, said Councilman Shawn Johnson.
Johnson and Councilwoman Kenyne Humphrey both stated at a meeting in January that they were concerned the freeze makes it difficult to recruit and retain high-quality police officers.
City Manager Carter Napier said at the workshop that the police department is “consistently down” by about 10 officers.
In addition to increasing retention rates, the mayor said more officers should be trained in how to handle situations involving mentally ill individuals.
The Council also agreed to continue working with liquor license holders and police to reduce alcohol-related crime and tragedies.
“Our goal for the next year is that we will have zero infractions,” Powell said.
Liquor license holders now receive 25 points for many infractions, including serving alcohol to minors and selling alcohol outside of the established hours. The Council does not begin taking disciplinary action until a liquor license holder reaches 125 points, but the police chief recently suggested enacting a stricter policy to deter alcohol-related incidents.
Disciplinary action can include anything from a brief liquor license suspension to revoking a license entirely.
City Manager Carter Napier met with the police chief on Thursday to discuss the Council’s ideas.
Implementing some of the Council’s goals, such as increasing police presence at schools, will be challenging given the department’s limited resources, said Napier. But the city manager said McPheeters is eager to work on solutions.
“He was enthused with [council’s objectives] and very supportive,” said Napier.