INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Four Indiana towns were awarded U.S. Department of Justice grants to add police officers to the communities.
The town of La Paz, Indiana, has not had a full-time cop in 10 years. With its grant, the Town Council hopes to pay the salary of a new police officer for three years. About 560 people call the town of home. The downtown consists of a bank, a liquor store, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars post. There are no stoplights on the main drag. A volunteer fire department and one part-time police officer protect the town. The town also has two police cars for its part-time officer.
Roger Ecker, a lifelong resident, is the Town Council president. He said that “what I think is the biggest problem for the majority of small towns is the cost of the health insurance. Yes, I can afford the salary, but the cost of health insurance continues to rise,” Ecker said.
Ten years ago, the town had two full-time police officers. Both of the cops had health insurance through their spouses, which saved the town a ton of money. Ecker says the cost of health insurance is about 30% of an officer’s overall salary. When the officers retired the Town Council had no choice but to cut their full-time police department out of the budget.
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La Paz is a drive of more than two hours north from downtown Indianapolis. The main road through town is Old U.S. 31. The state government abandoned the road several years ago and rerouted U.S. 31 east of town, and that changed everything.
“We lost a lot of that traffic, which we lost a lot business, so it has really hit our tax base and when that happen it really drove us down to where we couldn’t have an officer full-time anymore,” Ecker said.
Last week, the town was awarded a $120,000 Justice Department grant to pay for a police officer. The news was big enough to put the grant announcement — plus a greeting to News 8 for reporting on it — on a digital sign in the front yard of the fire department.
“The starting salary is $45,000, two weeks’ vacation with health insurance,” Ecker said.
The town had to guarantee a fourth year of the salary, which Ecker says will require some belt-tightening around Town Hall.
La Paz may be small, but it’s not immune to crime. In 2020, the crime rate spike 14% and traffic violations rose 38% over the previous year. Heroin use has crept into town and brought with it property crimes. In 2020, the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office made close to 500 runs to the town, and the part-time La Paz cop answered eight calls. The belief around town is when cops are present people tend to behave better.
“It would be nice to have a little presence here so people have a little fear,” said Vince Feitz, a long-time resident who added that having a cop around keeps the less-than-honest people away.
Feitz also said, “You know, in the end, maybe it is an expense that maybe everybody doesn’t support, but, you know what, our future is our kids, and if we don’t do something to protect them walking down the street, what do we have? We don’t have anything.”
The new cop will have three square miles of town to patrol, and the support of the Town Council.
The council leader, Ecker, said the new “police officer will find something different about La Paz than bigger communities. I think they will find more respect and I think that goes a long way.”
The Town Council president also said he recognizes that hiring a police officer now is very difficult, but, if all goes well, the town hopes to have its first full-time police on the streets in next 90 days.