Just a month into his new job, Lakewood Police Chief Kevin Kaucheck is facing his biggest obstacle yet — staffing an undermanned department with 66 officers, down from 76 in 2019, covering a city of more than 49,000.

One of those issues is a struggling Neighborhood Police Program. Normally, four officers work as liaisons to the four wards. They communicate with businesses and handle nuisance and juvenile issues.

There are four wards in Lakewood. The wards that are vacant are Ward 2 and Ward 4, which cover parts of downtown Lakewood and the neighborhoods near Edgewater. Consequently, services to the community have been delayed.

“The concerns are that the department won’t have that daily connection with the residents and businesses that make up the community,” said Ward 1 Councilwoman Tess Neff. “I don’t want those relationships to break because we may not have an officer dedicated to one of the neighborhoods.”

The issues began last year with a rash of retirements and departures. A total of nine officers left as a result of retirement, the pandemic or the protests last summer. Two more officers are expected to leave in the spring, Kaucheck said during a public safety committee meeting on Jan. 4.

“We kind of hit a perfect storm this year. We knew about two or three of the retirements, but at least six of them came out of the blue,” Kaucheck said.

The city first heard of the issue in November when one of the officers in the program alerted Neff. The officers who covered Ward 2 and Ward 4 requested to return to regular patrol, putting added pressure on the other two officers.

Kaucheck plans to continue the program despite staffing concerns. The city has issued a new civil service test and plans to hire three officers in the following months. Another three officers are currently going through training. However, the neighborhood police program won’t be fully operational until the end of the year, he said.

“I believe in this program and I believe in community policing,” Kaucheck said. “We just can’t do it the way we want to do it right.”

To help out, school resource officers filled in the vacant spots during the holidays. However, since school began again last week they have returned to their regular positions.

Despite the neighborhood police program being stretched thin, the departures have not affected the department’s overall ability to protect the city.

Community policing, first introduced in the 1960s, seeks to build a connection between the police department and the community to stop crime before it happens, according to legal resource LawTeacher.net.

Lakewood introduced its neighborhood patrol program in 2008, according to At-Large Councilman Tom Bullock.

“There’s so much going on in Lakewood that we can certainly use these officers to help,” he said. “The neighborhood officers are working to solve long-term problems like housing disputes. This allows the department to focus on daily patrols and to help others in an emergency.”

Contact this reporter at akamczyc@westlifenews.com or 216-307-6614.

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