Whether it’s the Athens Police Department’s mounted patrol mingling with raucous festers or officers lining Court Street in anticipation of a protest — law enforcement officers have an active presence in Athens.
Despite that visibility, both the Athens Police Department and the Ohio University Police Department’s administration maintain they are understaffed when considering the area they’re tasked to cover.
With a total of 49 sworn police officers policing a city of about 53,000 residents and students, Athens has a higher citizen-to-police ratio than Ohio college towns such as Kent, Bowling Green and Oxford.
“I would say that, especially in the past few years, we felt short-staffed,” said OUPD Lt. Tim Ryan.
That theme carries over to OUPD’s cross-town partner, APD, which currently has a total of 22 officers on staff, and is set to see further cutbacks this year.
“We’re, on paper, authorized 25 (officers). … That’s down from 29 in the early 2000s,” APD Chief Tom Pyle said. “After June, we’ll be down to 20 … if we hire no one between now and October, we’ll be at 19 police officers.”
In its annual report, APD officials stressed that the department experienced a shortage of manpower in the past year.
Though that message reached Athens City Council and the city administration, officials said an increase in officers isn’t in the budget.
“We could always use more (officers), but then it goes to how much money we have,” said Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl. “It takes a good chunk out of our general fund.”
About $3.71 million of the city’s $13.4 million general fund for 2015 — which is set and regulated by Athens City Council — goes to APD, most of which is spent on staffing of any department.
Adding new officers would require the city to divert more funds to the department.
“When you start saying ‘add a few more,’ it would soak up more of the general fund,” Wiehl said.
He added that staffing could not be increased without the city increasing its income tax.
“Their pay is probably going up about 3 percent each year,” Wiehl said. “Our income tax has not been going up at the same rate. It would be a crunch.”
For Wiehl, the collaboration between APD and OUPD is essential.
“We’re lucky that we do have APD,” Wiehl said. “OUPD has a good force, but, at the same time, it comes down to dollars.”
Despite low staffing levels and an overwhelming officer-to-resident ratio, APD and OUPD do their best to combine forces to cover events on and off campus.
Sometimes, that can result in police presence that some might call “excessive.”
Ryant Taylor, Student Union member and former Post columnist, chalked up the amount of officers in Athens to a national culture of excessive security.
“I think the United States, as a whole, has a very strong security, surveillance culture, and that shows itself whenever there are large social events or rallies on campus,” Taylor said in an email.
A large police presence can be intimidating to some and disheartening to those looking to have their voices heard, Taylor said.
“None of the student protests this past year or in recent years have ever been a risk to public safety,” Taylor said. “The visibility of police at these rallies show that they, as force, don’t seem to take our issues seriously and view our demonstrations as a nuisance. Furthermore, there is a very strong sense of targeting certain individuals with very political ideologies.”
While some attribute the show of force up to a political statement or a cultural phenomenon, Ryan said sometimes it comes down to planning ahead for all possible outcomes.
“I would say, from the planning standpoint, we sort of have to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Ryan said. “People can sometimes see the cops and say ‘Wow, that’s too many.’ Planning for that is just difficult.”