Phoenix Police Facing Staffing ‘Crisis,’ Union Says

The union representing Phoenix’s rank-and-file officers is calling for City Council to ratchet up the public-safety budget to cope with what union leaders are calling a “crisis” in low staffing levels.

Recent hiring efforts have been balanced out by retirements, Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Ken Crane said at a Monday news conference.

Despite the recent blitz of recruits, the department is still short more than 400 bodies.

Crane urged Phoenix residents to pressure City Council members to increase the tax dollars earmarked for the police department and to accelerate the hiring process.

“The citizens are the real boss,” he said. “Don’t ever forget that.”

Crane said the manpower shortage is felt by citizens in climbing police response times. According to data provided by PLEA, the average time it takes an officer to respond had risen over the past year across all priority levels of calls.

From 2011-2015, it took an average of just over five minutes to respond to a priority one call, defined as crimes in progress or violent incidents such as homicides. The current response time is now over six minutes.

Response times for lower-priority calls also rose during the same time period, by several minutes on average, according to the data.

A steep drop from 2008

Phoenix police expect to hire 200 officers this fiscal year, but PLEA officials say that number could be heavily offset by more sworn staff eligible to retire. According to a February city estimate, about 50 officers are projected to retire in fiscal 2017, but that estimate does not include all eligible retirements and other resignations.

Staffing at the Phoenix Police Department peaked in 2008, when the department employed 3,388 sworn personnel. But that year also kicked off a six-year hiring freeze brought on by the recession. By the time police began hiring again in February 2015, the count had dropped to 2,772, a deficit of 616 officers.

Sgt. Jonathan Howard, a Phoenix police spokesman, said, because of attrition, the total number of sworn officers dipped even lower after the hiring freeze was lifted. By November 2015, sworn staffing had reached a modern-day low of 2,677.

Phoenix’s population had swelled an estimated 5 percent in the meantime. In 2008, the number of residents was estimated at 1.45 million, compared with 1.52 million in 2015.

The target goal for sworn officers is 3,125, a figure Howard said was based on factors including population, geography and crime rates.

Phoenix police currently have 2,722 officer — 50 officers than when the department began hiring again. If the figure included officers in training and recruits in the academy, it grows to 2,856.

Officers in training must complete a 16-week field-training program before they’re allowed to police on their own.

Redeployment plan generates criticism

PLEA officials criticized what they deemed short-term solutions by department leadership.

The agency will soon reassign 169 detectives and specialty officers, as well as 24 sergeants back to the streets to aid with patrol. And Crane said the current policy of granting officers overtime will lead to burnout.

“Citizens feel this,” he said. “They feel the pinch. They feel the strain.”

Chief Jeri Williams, in a statement released Monday afternoon, explained the reallocation as “a delicate balance of utilizing officers and detectives from the entire department while minimizing impact to other workgroups.”

“The goal is to ensure we maintain expected levels of service to the community and improve response times,” she said.

Williams said community action officers, who work most closely with residents, will not be reassigned.

“I can assure you we are doing everything we can to protect our residents, protect our officers, and maintain our healthy police department within our resources,” she said.

Parks over policing?

Crane said PLEA is not asking for a specific budget increase and stressed that it’s the City Council’s duty to justly appropriate tax dollars.

PLEA officials didn’t blame Williams for the manpower shortage, Crane said, adding they understood the chief, who has been on the job for five weeks, had inherited the situation.

Michael Nowakowski, a city councilman and chair of the Public Safety and Veterans Subcommittee, said he felt Williams was “trying to think outside the box” with the reallocations.

“It’s ruffling some feathers out there, but I think the chief is trying to do what she can,” he said.

In a document given to reporters, PLEA made the case to reallocate funds from different portions of the city, highlighting a variety of multimillion-dollar projects.

“The City of Phoenix is putting dog parks, artwork, swimming pools and city park renovations ahead of the safety of police officers and citizens,” the statement read.

PLEA also floated the idea of restoring a 2-cent food tax to raise revenue for police.

City Manager Ed Zuercher said the largest share of Phoenix’s budget already goes to police: about $615 million, or 44 percent of the city’s general fund budget in fiscal year 2017. He said that on average, each officer costs the city about $140,000 per year; if the city were to gain 100 more officers, it would have to come up with an additional $14 million per year.

Asked about the projects PLEA said were prioritized over public safety, Zuercher highlighted the Cortez Park Pool, a $3 million 2014 project. The pool, Zuercher said, was placed in one of the most densely populated parts of the city and gives kids a place to go during the summer.

“I don’t think we have to pit projects against each other,” he said. “One of the things we want to keep in mind is, we want to have a city that’s worth policing.”

From The Arizona Republic

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