WSAZ Investigates: A City in Crisis Part 2
The second time this week, Huntington Police are investigated a deadly shooting, the second in just over 24 hours. There was also an additional shooting wedged in between.
In the fall of 2015, Huntington city officials said they needed to raise the user fee from $3 to $5, in order to hire more police officers and fix roads in disrepair.
At that time, there were 104 officers on the force.
Tuesday, two years after the rate increase passed, the city is budgeted for 103 officers. Huntington only has 95 officers employed, though, with 89 of them active.
WSAZ asked Huntington Mayor Steve Williams where the money went.
"The user fee ended up being a firewall," Williams told WSAZ. "At the very least, what the user fee helped us do was to protect what we already had."
Williams says since the 2015 user fee hike, the money has not put any additional officers on the street, due to other budget problems, including the soaring cost of health insurance.
"The intent was that it was going to be able to help us to hire additional staff. That was the intent," Williams says.
"So without the user fee we could have seen an even lower number of officers?" WSAZ's Jatara McGee asks Williams.
"Oh yes ... frightening," he replied.
"Do you think that's transparent, that the public understands that?" McGee asked.
"I doubt seriously that the public understands the nature of finance," Williams responded.
For perspective, in Charleston, the user fee is also used for roads and police. The city just increased the fee from $2.50 to $3. The increase was approved in September, and Police Chief Steve Cooper says it will translate to 10 new officers being hired in April, increasing the department to 173 officers.
In Huntington, the issues come at a time when the murder rate in the city is the highest it has been in at least the last 30 years.
According to our records, Huntington Police investigated just three homicides in 2015, the same year the user fee hike was proposed and later passed. The homicide number climbed four-fold in 2016 to 12. This year, there are 20 homicide investigations already, the 20th coming Tuesday afternoon.
"All we can do is work with what we have," Williams said. "What we're expected with the money that is given to us is to provide the most aggressive, most proficient public safety program that the citizens of Huntington could ever expect to have. I don't think the public should expect anything less."
The mayor also says he wants to add officers to the department but does not want to raise fees.
"I don't make promises until I know if I can deliver them," Williams told WSAZ. "There is one person responsible, and that's me, and I'll take it to council, and I'll persuade them as to how we can get there; but I know what I have to do, and I take that responsibility seriously."
The mayor calls the number of homicides the city has had in 2017 unacceptably high.
With an uptick in crime and violence in Huntington over the last month, public safety has been the center of a lot of conversations. Police say most of that crime has been fueled by the drug epidemic.
In the last 24 hours, there has been a murder, an armed robbery and another shooting Monday night in the city.
The events have neighbors calling for change, as city leadership grapples with how to move forward. We took concerns to city leadership in the first part of an ongoing investigation, A City in Crisis.
There have been three murders and five armed robberies in the last 13 days in Huntington, according to Huntington Police.
Community members are inundated with image after image of drugs, crime and a city in crisis. There is even a documentary getting Oscar buzz that refers to Huntington as the ground zero of the nation's heroin epidemic.
Neighbors like Don Greathouse, who has lived here for most of his life, are started to worry about their safety and are getting fed up.
"We want a change. We want to feel safe in our homes again. we want to feel safe on our streets again," Greathouse tells WSAZ. "It's my city. It's where I'm from, ok? It's my heritage. and no one wants to see their heritage trashed. No one wants their city trashed."
Three weeks ago, safety concerns forced Food Fair to announce it would close its doors for good. The grocery store will close at the end of the week.
A downtown business tells WSAZ they are cutting back store hours for similar reasons.
"We had to put a lock on the door recently for the bathroom, because we were having an issue with people and suspected drug use in our bathroom," a downtown manager tells WSAZ. "It's just becoming a little scary downtown."
We checked the numbers and confirmed that Huntington Police are investigating 19 homicides this year. The murder rate per capita in Huntington now tops cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C. There are nearly three full weeks left in the 2017 calendar year.
Charleston, a city almost identical to Huntington's population, has had nine murders.
Police leadership in Huntington told city council that officers are even being pulled from the detective and drug units, working 24 hour shifts or a going full weeks without a day off.
WSAZ took all of these concerns to Huntington Mayor Steve Williams.
"Our officers are worn out," Williams admits. " He also admitted staffing at the police department is dangerously low.
"It's a constant concern. It's a constant concern, because our officers, all of our first responders, when they start working fatigued, it becomes an issue for them. That is a major concern."
Williams says to hire more officers, the city first has to find the money.
"We're not raising fees. We're not raising fees," he repeated throughout the interview.
Right now, Huntington has 95 police officers -- 89 who are not on longterm injury or military leave. Compare that number to Charleston's, sitting at 163 officers.
To neighbors concerned about their safety, they are not just numbers.
"You have a tendency to think gosh are they actually doing anything to help combat this?" Don Greathouse says. "What happens if a little kid gets in the way? What happens if a little 14-year-old girl -- like the girl the other week -- gets shot?"
He says it is time to amp up and take the fight against drugs, crime and for public safety up a notch.
"Will it be painful? Yeah. It always is. Recovery always is," he says.