The Hattiesburg Police Department is short on officers

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Hattiesburg is short on police officers.

Slated for 140, with a dozen of those spots reserved for officers on military leave, the HPD is 23 officers short of rank capacity.

That may not seem like many, but it means there is one policeman or woman for every 429 residents, when it is budgeted to have almost exactly 100 residents less per officer.

"There is a shortness on patrol," said HPD Lieutenant Eric Proulx. And that becomes most clear at night, when there are just five patrol officers on Hattiesburg streets after dark.

Proulx added that "between 10 and 20 officers" could be made available if members of specialized divisions were tasked to hit the streets in an emergency. "It's not a concern because whenever any incident comes along or the dispatchers need to send other officers because patrol officers are busy, the special operations units have always stepped up and responded," said Proulx.

So there are other - specialized - officers on duty, but just five patrolling the streets for crime.

When officers become sparse, HPD recruits through their police academy - which they are holding now - to draft new officers into the ranks that will go straight to patrols.

"Everybody starts out on patrol - that is the backbone of our police department," said HPD Lieutenant Tony Fontaine.

But even the police academy class going through now will not give the department enough to fill the ranks. "We won't reach our 140 and we know we're not going to reach our 140 by the end of this class," said Fontaine. "We'll be happy if we get two."

The Hattiesburg Police Academy is known as one of the toughest in the state. "We've actually had half the number of applicants that we've had in previous years," said Proulx. But HPD said, even with the need for officers, they won't make it any easier to get on the force. "We can't be allowing people to wear this uniform who are not qualified."

Did too few officers on the force last year contribute to a six percent rise in crime in 2011?

"You can't say that manpower is necessarily affecting that." HPD was short officers in past years - when crime went down - but now that it's up, it sure can't help.