- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Chad Staley flips a U-turn on 21st Street to check out the license plate on a pickup when something else catches his eye: A red Acura Legend blows a stop sign right in front of him.

“It did not stop,” he says.

The Lincoln police officer revs his cruiser’s engine, stops, then whips a left to go west on G Street, away from Lincoln High.

Another car is in his way. “Go around,” says his partner, Officer Conan Schafer.

Staley does, and now there’s nothing but distance between him and the Acura. The license plate comes into view, and Schafer is on it. He hails dispatch and tells them he and his partner are stopping the car. Then he’s pecking away at the cruiser’s laptop computer.

Schafer tells his partner that the car is registered to a 53-year-old woman who lives a dozen blocks away. She has a valid driver’s license and has been in a couple of accidents, and her only run-ins with police are traffic-related.

The game changes if Schafer unearths a history of drug abuse, drunk driving, attacking cops or carrying a gun: “That would put us in a different mode,” he says.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports (http://bit.ly/NmXiTh ) Staley and Schafer, both 17-year veterans at the Lincoln Police Department, are paired as part of a reinstituted strategy of putting two officers in some cruisers - giving them more manpower for serious incidents, saving money on gas and giving the driver a co-pilot who can work a computer and tap into the department’s wealth of information.

Lincoln police abandoned partnering officers in cruisers in the 1970s. Having them ride solo gave the department more chess pieces to cover the board. Instead of tying up two officers on a vandalism call or a car break-in that happened overnight, that second officer could handle something else.

That’s why single-officer cruisers still make up the bulk of the police department’s army, with only seven two-officer cars among the roughly four dozen cruisers that rove about the city.

But better technology, rising gas prices and the allure of instant backup in the passenger’s seat led police officials to upgrade a few pawns to rooks three summers ago.

Now, each of the city’s five geographical teams deploys at least one two-officer cruiser overnight, when they’re more likely to catch a call about a robbery, wild party or domestic violence. Those calls would require two officers to respond, no matter how many cars they came in.

The southwest team, which covers the Near South and Everett neighborhoods, uses three cruisers with paired officers since that area has a higher concentration of serious incidents.

There’s a balancing act, says Capt. Mike Woolman, who oversees the southwest team. Single-officer cruisers can cover more calls and more ground, and help give police larger presence in the mind of the public - both for keeping would-be criminals in check and making the community feel safer.

If two officers respond to every little incident, one of them inevitably winds up twiddling thumbs while the other writes a speeding ticket or catalogs what a burglar stole from a garage overnight.

“You have officers out of service,” Woolman said. “I’ve got an officer in a cruiser who could be doing something.”

Woolman said he thinks he has the right mix, and isn’t planning to add another two-man cruiser to his armament.

About five years ago, department brass decided to try the setup as a pilot project, putting two northwest team officers in a cruiser together to see if their hypothesis about saving gas and better using technology proved true. It did, so Police Chief Jim Peschong told the captains to pair up at least two officers in every team area.

The idea ran against more than four decades of conventional wisdom, which had led departments across the country to opt for solo-officer cruisers, Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady said.

But the technological explosion has changing everything, including policing. Plus, law enforcement brass are faced with the prospect of $5-a-gallon gas.

“It just seems to me the math may have changed since the 1970s,” Casady said.

Lincoln’s appears to be one of the first departments crunching the numbers again, said Gary Cordner, professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Police departments in bigger cities like Chicago kept two-officer cruisers even after research showed they could do more work, cover more ground and create a larger police presence with one to a cruiser. Officer safety and the desire for quick backup drove those decisions.

But, Cordner said, he knows of no other department the size of Lincoln’s that is putting officers back in pairs.

“Kudos to them for trying to experiment,” he said.

Officers riding shotgun can hit their laptops when they get a call from dispatch. They find out if police have gone to the same address before, how many times and what for. If dispatch gives a name, an officer can see if police have had any run-ins with the person, what they were about, or if other officers tagged the person as violent or belonging to a gang.

“The officers are more prepared to handle the call when they get there,” Woolman said. “There’s just a lot of things they can do that a single-officer car can’t.”

“We have all this information available,” Peschong echoed, “but when you’re in a one-officer cruiser, you’re not pulling over to read all this; you’re going to that call for service with what dispatch gave you.”

Dispatch doesn’t have time to provide officers with anything but quick rundowns of where they need to go and why, Peschong said. After all, 20 other officers in marked cruisers, 20 more in plainclothes, and detectives all want information, too.

“Nine times out of 10, they don’t have the time,” Peschong said, which means solo officers don’t get to do the research that someone like Schafer does for Staley.

Things are always changing, and like everyone and everything else, police need to adapt, Professor Cordner said. Technology, more than ever, is key to how officers do their jobs.

But, he added, good police always have and will continue to interact with people the most and in the best ways.

“Cops do a better job when they’re interacting with the public,” he said. “If they’re spending their whole time looking at the computer screen or typing on a keyboard and aren’t talking to people, I’m not sure that’s a net gain.

“The whole tech (thing) makes me a little nervous, not because I’m a Luddite, but because I think it pulls police away from people.”

Staley and Schafer, who paired up a little more than a year ago, said they go on about twice the number of calls as other officers on their team, and that they’re tackling big calls - the robberies, domestic violence - that need two officers. They have the instant backup and can not only arm themselves with information, but can divvy it out to other officers heading to the same call.

Said Schafer, “We’re the spearhead.”

___

Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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