The Lockport police officers union is expected to urge the Common Council today to spend $272,000 to upgrade the police department's radio equipment and keep dispatching in-house.
City leaders for weeks have discussed whether to let Lockport Police Department continue to handle its own dispatching or have LPD utilize Niagara County's dispatch center. Should LPD join the county's center, the city could either carve out a separate frequency for LPD or utilize a shared frequency, which is used by every law enforcement agency in the county except the Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda police departments. NTPD dispatching is handled by the county on a separate frequency.
The county had previously asked the city to pay $156,000 a year to join the shared frequency or $478,000 for an LPD-only frequency, in order to hire more dispatchers. But last month, the county legislature approved a resolution permitting the city to join its frequency at no cost, while Sheriff Jim Voutour said he would push for a new frequency option that would cost the city about $320,000.
Hickory Club President Kevin Lucinski declined to comment on the details of the union's dispatch pitch before discussing it with the council. But Lucinski said the union remains opposed to sharing a frequency with other law enforcement agencies.
“It’s still our position as a union that keeping our own frequency is the safest option available to us at this time," he said.
At a Police Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Interim Police Chief Steven Preisch and Mayor Michelle Roman said they worry whether the county could handle the city's call volume on its shared frequency.
Preisch said the city has more emergency calls — and more serious calls — than any other place in the county outside Niagara Falls.
"We’re taking guns off the street. We’ve had a couple shootings this year. We deal with more violent crime, outside of Niagara Falls, than any other department," Preisch said.
"You’re going to take that and you’re going to plop it right on them," Preisch said, referring to call volume on the dispatch channel. "That’s going to be a lot."
Voutour said previously that the sheriff's office frequency receives calls about 12 percent of the time and LPD's frequency about 4 percent of the time; if merged, it's estimated the central line would be busy 15 percent of the time. But Voutour also said officers can still talk during emergencies, and in that event, dispatchers are required to drop any non-emergency calls.
“The emergency will go through and (a dispatcher) will hear it. And then their protocol is to immediately clear the person talking and take that emergency call," Voutour said.
Voutour has also said that if the shared frequency was unsafe, he wouldn't have his deputies using it.
But Preisch and Roman pointed out the sheriff's office has yet to see the call volume it's likely to face with LPD in the mix.
Roman said that if the city was to join the county frequency, she would like the county to commit in writing to not charging for dispatch consolidation — even if the county someday determines LPD needs its own frequency.
"I would like in writing from the county that if they were to determine that they couldn’t handle our volume — because I seriously have doubts about it — and they needed to go to a different channel, that we are not going to be paying for it," Roman said.
"It makes me very nervous to say we’ll go there and then in six months they’ll say, 'This is too much for us. You have to get your own channel and now you have to pay the $477,000,'" she added.
Preisch said local dispatch affects more than who answers emergency calls and directs officers. LPD's walk-in window, non-emergency phone line, oversight of its holding cells and security at city hall could all be affected, because those duties are now the responsibility of the same officers who handle dispatch.
And it remains unclear how some department practices would be affected by dispatch consolidation. Preisch asked whether the county would train LPD officers to use the county computer systems, cover the cost of transferring LPD's data to the county system and fix issues with LPD's computers. He also wondered how LPD would receive 911 call recordings from the county under the deal.
Under current practices, LPD has to submit a written request for a 911 recording with the county's director of emergency communications — a process that Preisch said can take several days.
"That could be (information pertaining to) a missing person,” Preisch said.
“This is bigger than just dispatch. This is a much bigger issue," he added.
City and county leaders have discussed merging the two dispatch centers, periodically, for about two decades, with little progress. Discussions picked up again in recent months after Voutour revealed LPD is down to one working phone line.
Ironically, should that line fail, emergency calls placed within the city would go to the county dispatch center. However, dispatchers would have to send emergency call information to Lockport police manually, which could delay the response and opens a greater possibility of human error.
Preisch said he is concerned because moving LPD onto the county dispatch is likely to be a months-long process.
"It would take months to get everything up and running," he said. "Every dispatcher would be dealing with those delays."
“When you multiply it out over a six-month period ... something could slip through the cracks," he added.