1,000 daily calls keep officers on the run
When Sgt. Ron Payette joined the Tucson police force in 1982, there was so much silence between calls that the dispatcher often piped up with a “radio check” to let officers know the radios were working.
Now Payette, a Midtown Division patrol supervisor, practices what he calls “MASH-unit” law enforcement, zipping through traffic from call to call whenever he is on patrol.
Often, dozens of low-priority cases await attention while police are repeatedly diverted by higher priority calls. With more than 400,000 calls a year, there are few breaks.
“You stick a Band-Aid on it and move on to the next one,” Payette said recently while driving to Tucson Medical Center to take two calls, a drug overdose and a reported sexual assault.
For the past decade Tucson has lagged at least 32 percent behind the national average number of officers per 1,000 people, leaving Tucsonans with an overworked Police Department and crime victims who wait, often for hours, for officers to arrive.
“We have to triage our services so we are available to deal with those life-and-death emergencies,” police Chief Richard Miranda said. “Where in the past the life-and-death emergency was the exception – maybe it happened once or twice a night – now it’s happening once or twice an hour.”
Each day, Tucson police take more than 1,000 calls, about two-thirds of them low-priority calls such as identity theft, burglary and car theft. On Oct. 20, dispatchers took 989 calls to 911, or about one every 90 seconds.
Combine those calls with non-911 calls, and it totals more than 400,000 annually.
Tucson led the nation’s cities in property theft from 2001-04. For 2005, Tucson was 14th in the nation, with 5,230 reported property crimes per 100,000 residents.
Miranda attributes about 30 percent of that reduction to police starting in 2005 to report crimes only when paper reports were filed. Violent crime increased by about 1 percent between 2004 and 2005, when police reported 650 violent crimes per 100,000 people. But the city has fewer officers per person than the national average.
The city had 1,028 commissioned officers in 2006, 1.9 per 1,000 residents, city statistics show. The national average is 2.8 officers per 1,000 for cities of 250,000 people or more, the FBI says. To reach that average, Tucson would need 1,484 officers based on the 2005 population. Tucson has grown at a pace of about 8,000 people a year for the past decade.
Calling all cops
Capt. Richard Harper, commander of the department’s Training Division, has been with TPD since the mid-1970s. When he took the entrance exam, there were about 2,000 applicants to the department, which then served about 300,000 people.
“Today, I would say you’d be lucky to get a thousand,” Harper said.
Finding qualified candidates is tough in part because the pool of applicants is smaller and because smaller cities can now afford to pay wages comparable to Tucson’s, where recruits start at about $42,000 a year, Miranda said.
Danger is another factor. Being a police officer in a quiet, small town might seem a good alternative to Tucson, where police are involved in violence daily. This includes fights with unarmed suspects.
“It’s more dangerous out there now than it’s ever been,” Harper said.
The officer deficit means slower response when you call 911, especially for low-priority cases, Miranda said.
In August, the department’s average response time was 76.43 minutes for the least serious cases, which include mail theft and neighbor disputes that don’t involve a threat of violence. Downtown Division officers responded quickest, with an average of 40.66 minutes; South Division was slowest, with an average of 96.4 minutes, police statistics show.
The average August response for the highest priority cases, including homicide, aggravated assault and bank robberies, was 4.5 minutes citywide, with the fastest responses coming on the West Side at 3.47 minutes and the slowest on the East Side at 6.22 minutes.
In 2005, Payette’s operations bureau, which covers midtown, and the North and East sides, got to 69 percent of emergency calls within five minutes and 60 percent of low-priority calls, such as welfare checks and stolen cars, within an hour, he said.
The city’s other bureau, which covers downtown and the South and West sides, got to 76 percent of emergency calls in five minutes or less and 64 percent of low-priority calls in an hour.
More officers would help the department meet its goals of boosting the response rates by 3 percent in Payette’s bureau and 4 percent in the other bureaus by 2008.
The personnel shortage has led to extra work for police employees and costs for taxpayers. Last year, 1,326 hourly, full-time employees earned $5.6 million for working an estimated 141,735 hours of overtime, city records show.
That figure includes all employees, not just sworn staffers, including officers.
Payette would love to see a return to the days when police had time to get to know the neighborhoods they patrolled, the way it was done before “community policing” and “geographically based patrols” were necessary.
“Years ago, you didn’t have to have those names,” he said. “It was the natural way to do things.”
Miranda’s goal is to have enough officers to quickly get to calls that might seem minor, such as arguing neighbors and truant teens.
Resolving those types of calls quickly could avert bigger crimes, such as assault and gang activity, he said.
“We are supposed to be involved with long-term resolution,” Miranda said. “Getting out of the car and dealing with those small problems has to remain a goal for us even though it might be difficult. You can’t lose sight of that vision.”
Until that time comes, Tucson police including South Division patrol Officer Guillermo Fernandez, a 13-year TPD veteran, will try to keep up.
“We like our jobs, we really do,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just nonstop and almost futile.”
MORE INSIDE, PAGES 4 AND 5
● Lost senior citizens, domestic disputes and sexual assaults. All in a day’s work.
● What are those officers in police helicopters overhead up to?
● The city’s 10-year plan to beef up the police force
● What it takes to become a badge-carrying officer in Tucson
Citizen Staff Writers Brad Branan and Eric Sagara contributed to this article.
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