CARL JUNCTION, MO. — The wife of a Carl Junction police officer said she's afraid for her husband's safety because the police department is shorthanded and has only one officer on at a time during parts of a 24-hour period.
Heather Jensen, wife of Cpl. Dustin Jensen, said she believes the city is not doing enough to maintain pay at the levels of surrounding departments and the resulting shortage is putting officers' lives in jeopardy with no backup except from surrounding communities that also are seeing a shortage of officers.
She spoke at the Carl Junction City Council meeting Tuesday and cited two incidents, one in 2020 and one in 2018, where she said her husband would have been in serious danger if he had been the only officer on duty.
"You guys want to say he can call Jasper County, but I talked to six different deputies. They're shorthanded too, and probably it could take up to an hour to get here, if they have the staff to get here," Jensen said. "What are you going to do when something like that happens to one of your officers? Who am I going to hold responsible if something like that happens to my husband? I'll tell you who I'm going to assume is responsible, and that's all of you because I feel you guys have neglected your streets, you've neglected your police department and have neglected the families of those police officers."
Carl Junction City Administrator Steve Lawver said after the meeting that the police department has been four officers below its budgeted number of 11 officers for about a month.
"I wish we weren't shorthanded," Lawver said. "I see two problems of why we're shorthanded. One of them is I don't think we've kept up with officer pay. The other is people don't want to be police officers anymore. That's a national deal. That's not just us. Every agency around here is short on people, there's no doubt. You take those two things, and it really compounds it, and that's why we're at the point where we have officers working by themselves, and that's not acceptable."
Police Chief Mike McCall said he's been working to convince city leaders to move police dispatching to the Jasper County 911 dispatch center for a while. Lawver said that move will free up about $73,500 a year that can be given as raises to all officers. The city approved the move, and McCall said the process is nearly complete.
"We're waiting on some software licensing to go through," McCall said. "We've got another meeting with the JASCO director and a couple of her employees tomorrow afternoon to get things ironed out, but ultimately, it's probably going to happen pretty quick."
Lawver added: "What we would do is do away with all the dispatchers and keep a couple of police clerks so there's someone at the front counter during the day that they can walk up to and they can get a report or whatever they need to do — nonemergency stuff," Lawver said.
Lawver said he's also hoping Carl Junction voters approve a proposed city use tax on internet purchases in the April 2 municipal election. A use tax is a tax levied on online purchases only and usually equals a city's or county's sales tax rate. The state of Missouri has charged a use tax equal to the state's 4.225% sales tax for years.
Carthage and Joplin already have voter-approved use taxes that add hundreds of thousands of dollars to their city revenue, while Jasper County is asking voters to approve a use tax for the county in the April election.
Carl Junction residents have rejected a use tax in the city in four previous elections.
"The council approved it to go on the ballot in April," Lawver said. "Within that ordinance, it is dedicated to the police department, somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000 directly to the PD budget, which would be awesome. We wouldn't have police cars with 100,000 miles."
Lawver said the ordinance earmarking the use tax to the Carl Junction Police Department doesn't have a sunset.
Jensen said after the meeting that she's skeptical that the city will do anything. Lawver said he understands her perspective.
"I've got two nephews in law enforcement, and I've got a cousin who is retired Kansas Highway Patrol," Lawver said. "I totally understand the concern because I talk to my niece, and she says there is no bigger relief than when her husband — my nephew — walks in the door and she hears the Velcro coming off. I totally understand. It's not as fast as they want it to be, but we're addressing it."
The Carl Junction City Council will hold a work session on the police department budget for fiscal year 2024-2025 at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, at Carl Junction City Hall, 303 N. Main St.
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