During busy times, Kansas City crime scene technicians can work a full shift, then catch a fresh case and stay on for 10 more hours — and be expected to return for the next day’s shift.
Other times, they can be working at one scene with a body and be called to another. They don’t want to rush their work, but they’re aware that officers are “holding” another scene and waiting for them to arrive.
The crime scene investigation unit is operating at two-thirds staffing with nine technicians doing the work of 15. It is one of several civilian units at the Kansas City Police Department facing harsh understaffing issues.
Turnover has always posed a problem for certain civilian police jobs, including dispatchers and detention officers, because of the hours and demands of the work.
But hiring freezes and budget reductions in recent years have worsened the situation by tacking on additional stresses such as mandatory overtime, unmanageable workloads and restrictions for days off. The additional difficulties are pushing out even more employees, creating a vicious cycle.
The department currently has 80 law enforcement vacancies and 101 civilian vacancies. More than half of the civilian vacancies are “frozen.”
One of the units most acutely affected is among the most important for the department: crime scene investigations. The stress from understaffing magnifies a constant worry accompanying their work — that they will miss something at a crime scene.
The department lost five technicians this year, the most in any recent year. Three of them cited the stress and workload in their exit interviews.
Technicians often must come into work on their day off to complete their paperwork because their usual workday consists of going call to call to call.
One former technician said he could count on two hands how many days he got off work on time in the past two years.
The department also lost one crime scene technician who died in July. A suspected drunken driver who was speeding plowed into Michael Chou’s car as he pulled out of the crime lab parking lot at 66th Street and Troost Avenue. He had just finished his night shift.
“This year has been one of our hardest,” acknowledged Linda Netzel, director of the crime lab.
The department also is losing technicians, and other employees, to the Johnson County crime lab, which opened a new building in 2012. Since 2008, Kansas City has lost six technicians to Johnson County, with almost all citing better pay.
Each technician covers about 100 crime scenes each year.
The department has adjusted by sending crime scene technicians to only the most serious and violent crimes. Detectives working robberies often need to process their own crime scenes without the benefit of an investigator’s expertise.
Violent crimes division detectives and officials are “aware of our situation, and they are pretty patient,” Netzel said, adding that she has transferred some responsibilities and set up a call-out for criminalists to help in the event of a large or particularly complex scene.
“Detectives do have to wait on us sometimes,” Netzel said. “But many times on a violent crime, we all end up waiting on (search) warrants anyway.”
Although the staffing shortage has further restricted the number of crime scenes technicians can work, the crime lab has always been “somewhat limited to violent offenses,” Netzel said.
A single homicide can generate multiple crime scenes, Netzel said, including where the crime occurred, where the body was found, a vehicle associated with the crime and a suspect or multiple suspects to process.
Netzel wants to expand the CSI unit to include 20 technicians.
In the meantime, Netzel said the department’s DNA burglary project has trained more than 100 patrol officers to collect evidence from property crimes. The crime lab also has trained members of specialized units, such as robbery, to collect DNA samples.
“We have also adjusted our policies and procedures in an effort to do only the work necessary,” Netzel said.
In the communications unit, dispatchers face a similar scenario, working at 80 percent staffing. The unit has 18 vacancies out of 108 positions.
To maintain minimum staffing levels, dispatchers can get called in four hours before a shift or be forced to stay four hours after a shift with little notice. The unit has logged more than 8,300 hours of overtime so far this year, compared to more than 7,800 last year.
During the holidays, just one dispatcher on each shift can take a vacation day. During other times of the year, up to two dispatchers on the same shift can claim a day off.
Some dispatchers have resorted to calling in sick just to get a particular day off, current and former dispatchers say, but that forces another employee to work mandatory overtime and damages morale.
Staffing shortages also restrict the kind of schedules that supervisors can offer the dispatchers. Some would like to work 10- or 12-hour days to have more days off, but the high vacancy rate won’t allow it, said Jeane Rast, a dispatch supervisor.
As it stands, dispatchers must work on a schedule “wheel” that rotates their days off each week. The wheel eventually rotates them into getting two three-day weekend shifts every six weeks.
The unit has always struggled to maintain full staffing because it can be hard to find qualified workers who are willing to work nights and weekends, Rast said. The unit also got behind on staffing a few years ago when it was under a hiring freeze.
Rast is looking to fill six positions with people 18 or older who have a high school diploma or GED, “common sense, good judgment and the ability to prioritize and manage multiple tasks.”
Hiring freezes have hit the detention unit hard, too. To adjust to a smaller budget, the department reduced the number of detention facility officers and shut down its six patrol division jails. The department has only enough detention officers to staff the department’s downtown jail, and those officers also have to work mandatory overtime.
Officers in the four patrol divisions south of the river must now transport all of their arrests downtown. And friends or relatives of the people arrested must drive downtown to post bond or pick up the person.
The two Northland patrol division stations take turns every 28 days operating a jail, pulling an officer from the street to handle the detention duties. That saves officers a trip downtown.