City leaders are looking to the Casper Police Department to start fresh in 2018 with a new chief implementing recommendations from an outside review of the department.

Chief Keith McPheeters said Friday that among his top priorities are responding to sexual assaults, increasing department staffing levels and clearing a backlog of evidence. The priorities are part of a “rough draft” plan for the department that McPheeters drew up after consultation with his command staff and examining the findings from the outside review.

The review was commissioned by Casper City Council in April at the request of V.H. McDonald, who was city manager at the time, and Jim Wetzel, who was then police chief. The two men hoped the report would complement the development of the department’s five-year strategic plan.

In the month between McDonald’s request for the report and Council’s approval of the expenditure, McDonald unexpectedly announced his retirement and his interim replacement terminated police chief Jim Wetzel’s contract after internal turmoil at the department became public.

The contractor handling the review, the Center for Public Safety Management, delivered the report in October and the city manager’s office released it to the public Oct. 27. The report ended up costing the city nearly $35,000, well under an initial estimate of $63,550.

The responsibility for implementation of the suggestions in the report now falls to McPheeters, who took over the department in December. The suggestions are non-binding, and City Manager Carter Napier has said it is possible not all of the recommendations will be instituted.

“We’re still in a period of transition,” Napier said.

Goals in the new year

McPheeters said the department had already made headway on the issue of sexual assault before he arrived and he aims to continue that change.

The chief said the department was working on instituting a “philosophical shift” that will better prepare its officers to respond to sexual assaults. In January, some officers will attend a “train-the-trainer” program in Phoenix. Those officers will then train the rest of the department so that every employee, including non-sworn staff, will be trained in victim-centric and trauma-informed responses to sexual assault.

McPheeters said the department will be instituting a “much more aggressive” recruiting campaign to more fully staff the department, with an emphasis on patrol officer positions. That campaign is set to kick off in early January.

In speaking about what they expected for the police department in 2018, two City Council members and the city manager emphasized their support for the new chief.

After expressing her support for the top cop, Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay said she hopes the department addresses issues related to the handling of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Huckabay, who has been a frequent critic of the department in her time on City Council, said she was disappointed the chief did not address sexual assault or domestic violence in a mid-December interview with the Star-Tribune. The department reviewed its sexual assault policy last spring after a number of women criticized the way the department handled sexual assault cases.

“I think all this came about because of those issues,” Huckabay said on Thursday. “I hope we can get some changes done. Not only in appearance (but in) practice.”

McPheeters was not specifically asked about the department’s sexual assault response in the mid-December interview. He said in that interview that he was still consulting with his command staff to prioritize the department’s implementation of the report.

Huckabay said she would also like to see the department continue to focus on a community policing paradigm, wherein police and citizens partner in the policing process.

“We’re not a huge dangerous crime-infested community,” the councilwoman said. “It’ll take some time for him to get in there and really affect the culture.”

Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco, who is slated to become mayor on Jan. 9, said he would like a continuation of an open dialogue between the department and community. Although the City Council stepped up its interaction with the department during and following last spring’s tumult, he thinks it’s more important that the department connect with common citizens than speak to Council.

Plans already underway

Some of the recommendations from the outside review have already been instituted.

A new chief was installed, a sergeant has been promoted to lieutenant and two officers were named sergeant since the report was delivered. A veteran sergeant will be joining the investigations division in the new year, adding a supervisor to an understaffed division. Those changes are in keeping with the report’s recommendations to fill holes in the command staff.

The department also underwent an ambitious public relations campaign this fall. Termed “Our Community,“ the campaign aims to connect officers with the community they serve by hosting public change-of-shift briefings, making more use of foot and bike patrols downtown, participating in National Coffee With a Cop Day and more frequent appearances at community events. The effort also focuses on being more sensitive to the needs of domestic violence and sexual assault victims. The department opened a new “soft interview room” this fall to help victims feel safer while talking to investigators. Officers are also receiving new training for interviewing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The report recommended increasing community engagement and better handling of sexual assault.

McPheeters said he plans to continue the community-oriented approach. He called for citizens to “actively engage” the police department. He said he would like citizens to partner with the department to help fight crime, improve the quality of life and lower the cost of living in Casper.

Napier also cited community engagement as a crime-fighting tool he would like to see continued.

It’s already been paying off, Napier said: “The community’s confidence in the department is growing.”

Follow crime reporter Shane Sanderson on Twitter @shanersanderson