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Lincoln mayoral candidate Jeff Kirkpatrick would propose hiring 20 new police officers if elected in an effort to keep up with Lincoln's growth and ease the strain on officers, he said Tuesday.

The size of Lincoln's police force has been a campaign issue in recent mayoral and City Council elections. Police union members and department brass have aimed to boost the size of the force over concerns the department has lagged behind population growth in the last decade.

Lincoln added 26,000 residents between 2010 and 2017, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

The department has 361 officers, which includes recruits in the academy, and is 14 officers above its authorized force strength.

Chief Jeff Bliemeister has said though the city's crime rate has been falling in recent years, he's worried his officers investigate more mental health cases and have less time to do proactive policing like traffic enforcement. Digital evidence from cellphones and surveillance video has added more complexity to their workloads, he said.

Kirkpatrick, the city's attorney, believes having more officers will help police solve more crimes.

"While Lincoln is a safe community now, we have to continue to invest in public safety as the community grows," Kirkpatrick said in a news release announcing his plan.

The city, he said, has left money on the table by not applying for the U.S. Department of Justice Community-Oriented Policing Services grants, which cover three-quarters of an officer's salary for the first three years.

He said he would apply for the grant and seek to use a portion of the $5 million annually that the city doesn't earmark in its budget to match the federal grant money.

Though the federal money ends after three years, Kirkpatrick said in an interview he's confident revenue from higher property valuations could likely sustain the long-term.

The city last used the specific program in 2014 when Mayor Chris Beutler and Chief Jim Peschong sought and were awarded a $250,000 grant to add two gang investigators.

Last summer, Mayor Chris Beutler tapped a federal grant program to help add 15 firefighters to Lincoln Fire and Rescue.

The city received a $2.2 million federal grant to cover 75 percent of the salaries and benefits for the first two years and 35 percent in the final year. The city covers the remainder.

Fellow Democrat and mayoral candidate Leirion Gaylor Baird said her opponent's proposal isn't new, and grants have been a tool the City Council has used for the last two decades to hire first responders.

While she didn't commit to hiring a certain number of police officers in an interview Tuesday, Gaylor Baird said adequately staffing the police department to meet the growing city's needs would be a priority for her administration.

Since her re-election to the City Council in 2017, about a dozen officers have been hired, she said.

She believes federal grant money should be used responsibly in these hiring initiatives so the commitment isn't short-lived, Gaylor Baird said.

"The last thing you want to do is over-promise and under-deliver, and be in a position where you have to lay off" people, she said.

Councilwoman Cyndi Lamm, a Republican, and Krystal Gabel, a registered nonpartisan, didn't respond Tuesday afternoon to requests for comment.

Andy Ringsmuth, a nonpartisan mayoral candidate, dropped out of the race Tuesday.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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