Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Wednesday said public safety officials would exhaust all resources to solve a rash of shootings last weekend.
Gray, flanked by the city's top public safety officials, said police would beef up patrols, as well as increase the number of officers working in robbery/homicide, and would partner with community leaders to solve the cases as quickly as possible.
"Our public safety community is staffed and trained to always respond with discipline and commitment," Gray said. "Today, I am directing that we dedicate those resources and adjust them as needed to take down violent criminals."
His news conference came after a weekend in which there were five shootings. Two people — Marine Jonathan Thomas Price, 26, and aspiring rapper Charles Wright, 32 — were killed, and three were injured. No arrests had been made as of Wednesday, and officers have had only vague descriptions of the suspects.
Meanwhile, Anthany Beatty, Gray's opponent in the November general election and a former Lexington police chief, blasted Gray for cutting police resources over the past three years, including imposing limits on a take-home police cruiser program, and for failing to find money to hire police officers who left or retired.
Beatty, at a news conference at his campaign headquarters on Nicholasville Road, questioned the timing of Gray's news conference. "Public safety did not just become an issue in Lexington in recent months," he said. "Certainly for the last three years and longer, public safety has been an issue that has not been addressed until we called a press conference today."
Details about the most recent shootings remained sketchy Wednesday, but Lt. Brian Maynard of the robbery/homicide unit said police had "persons of interests."
"We can't go into specifics for the crimes we're investigating," he said, "but we've been actively working all weekend throughout the night and day."
Officials said Lexington, which ended 2013 with 19 homicides, needed the public's help to solve the shootings.
"Citizens realize the help with community issues is one of the greatest responsibilities that they have," said police Chief Ronnie Bastin. "We want to ask the public to continue to share information with us. Even the smallest tidbit of information may be of great value in one of these investigations."
The shootings that occurred this weekend were unusual and very concerning, Bastin said.
He said staffing levels had been increased on patrol, but he did not say by how much. The robbery/homicide unit has been increased from nine officers to 12. The department's Community Law Enforcement Action Response unit, which oversees the neighborhoods, is partnering with community leaders. And the robbery/homicide unit is working with the Fayette County sheriff's office to serve warrants and gather information.
The police department has had to use overtime funds to cover the cost of the increased police presence. The mayor's 2015 budget includes more than $165 million for public safety.
Toward the end of his news conference, Gray was asked whether Wednesday's news gathering was politically motivated.
His office scheduled the news conference after Beatty sent out a news release saying he would be addressing public safety concerns in the city and the cancellation of the Rupp Arena project.
Gray dismissed the question, saying "that's a red herring."
Afterward, Gray issued a statement about the comment, saying, "considering the tragic circumstances, that's a ridiculous question."
"This is about public safety, not politics," he said. "It's about keeping our city safe and encouraging citizens to communicate with the police if they have information that can be helpful in solving or preventing crime."
Beatty said he was not trying to use the tragedies of the past week to gain political traction. He spent 35 years as a Lexington police officer, including seven as chief, before he retired in 2007.
"I live in Lexington, my family lives in Lexington, I have kids and grandkids in Lexington. It's not about gamesmanship at all," he said.
Beatty said the number of police officers on Lexington streets had dropped in recent years because of budget cuts. As part of a collective bargaining agreement, police officers are allowed to drive patrol cars only to and from work. That means roughly 500 patrol cars no longer are seen at any time on city streets, said Beatty, adding that such visibility helps deter crime.
"We had a $10.4 million surplus magically appear last year at the same time that we are parking police cars and we are reducing the staffing levels," Beatty said. "The (police) visibility in the community has been reduced to almost nothing."
In 2007, the police had 587 officers, Beatty said. The number dropped to less than 500 during the past three years.
Meanwhile, "Lexington's population continues to grow," he said. "We had to have more law enforcement, folks, more police, more fire."
But Gray's administration said the number of police officers on Lexington streets always changes. For example, the department had an authorized strength of 555 for this fiscal year's budget. There are 535 police officers on the payroll.
There has never been fewer than 500 police officers authorized in the budget during the past several years, records from the city show.
Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said the number of officers on the streets might fluctuate throughout the year.
Gray has included money for 15 additional police officers and new correction officers in the upcoming budget.
Still, Beatty said, that wouldn't be enough to bring the staffing levels up to where they should be. "They're playing catch-up," he said.
The city is working with the Fraternal Order of Police to reinstate the take-home cruiser policy, Straub said.
"The change in this policy was implemented as a result of a collective bargaining agreement — both the FOP and administration agreed to the change," Straub said. "The current policy eliminates off-duty cruiser use except for those officers who use their cruiser for a second job. Those officers who utilize the service pay a flat $50 per month fee.
"We are working toward agreement on a plan where officers could use the cars while off-duty, and pay a flat fee basically to cover the cost of gasoline for their personal usage. We expect this agreement will be finalized in the next few weeks."
Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.