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Tucson Police Department struggles to find qualified recruits

Retired officers helping out

Police trainees watch Officer Paul Patterson (right) demonstrate punch combinations on recruit Jason Epling during defense tactics training at the Public Safety Academy on Monday.

Police trainees watch Officer Paul Patterson (right) demonstrate punch combinations on recruit Jason Epling during defense tactics training at the Public Safety Academy on Monday.

Sgt. Jeffrey McCarthy retired from the Tucson Police Department in April after 35 years on the job. The next day he was back at work, volunteering his time.

“I exchanged one badge for another – one that says reserve – and continued doing what I was doing,” he said.

Now, in addition to working the occasional patrol shift and overseeing a West Side anti-drug outreach program, he is helping to resurrect an old TPD program that brings retired officers back to work.

It’s not just love of police work that motivates McCarthy and others to volunteer. They are working to shore up staffing for a department that is losing its most experienced officers under a city retirement incentive program and is having trouble recruiting.

Some potential recruits have histories of illegal drug use, disqualifying them from police work.

Others thought twice about accepting the dangers of the job.

“There is truly a need, as I see it, for officers to come back and help,” McCarthy said. “There’s no substitute for experience. That’s especially true in this line of work.”

So far, six other officers have joined McCarthy in strengthening “the reserves.” Averaging about 18 years each with the department, they work at the police academy, at the stolen bike lot, on patrol, even in air support, he said.

Additionally, 55 civilians volunteer, and there are plans to resume an academy for reserves, which would give volunteers the same training and powers as paid officers, said Lt. Ron Stiso, who oversees the volunteer programs.

Fourteen people who could have entered the September academy class declined, nine citing family reasons and stress, which recruiters attribute partly to the line-of-duty death of Officer Erik Hite in June.

That left the department with an academy class of 19. More than 560 had applied.

The result of these converging trends is that 56 of TPD’s 1,113 authorized positions were unfilled Thursday, according to a staffing report. All but 10 of those positions were for patrol officers, known in police lingo as “boots on the ground,” the public face of TPD.

Although volunteers provide added staffing and institutional knowledge, officials agree that in the long term, the recruits are the key to turning the situation around.

According to staffing supervisor Lt. Rick Nuñez, however, the personnel situation looks grim.

“We’re trying to get as close as possible to the authorized number (of positions),” he said. “We’ve got 226-plus miles to cover. We get 400,000 calls a year. These are the numbers we’re working with.”

To address the situation, TPD plans to launch a new recruiting strategy in November, said Lt. Quinn McCarthy, a recruitment supervisor unrelated to Sgt. Jeffrey McCarthy.

He declined to discuss specifics of the plan but hinted that the economy may have every bit as much to do with the negative trends affecting TPD staffing as the positive ones.

“We’re seeing a lot more Realtors and mortgage brokers (in academy classes) now,” he said. “We’re looking to focus on people who are involved in public service and are losing their jobs.”

About 80 percent of TPD’s recruitment is done through its Web site, Quinn McCarthy said, though recruiters go to job fairs and open houses. “We just haven’t felt the need (for ads),” he said.

To be hired, applicants must pass a screening process, a written test, a physical test and an oral board, as well as a background check, stress test, polygraph test, and medical and psychological exams, Nuñez said.

That has ruled out 90 percent to 96 percent of applicants, according to department data since January 2007. Of those that make it to the academy, 10 percent don’t graduate. And of those who graduate, 10 percent don’t make it through field training, McCarthy said. From beginning to end, the process takes about 10 months.

Because the process is so intensive and time-consuming, Nuñez and McCarthy are taking new steps to weed out unsuccessful recruits before they get too far in the process.

They’ve made a video that shows recruits doing a drill called “Fight for Your Life.”

“We want them to know what they’re getting into,” Nuñez said. “Some of these kids have never been in a fight before. They will definitely get punched in the face doing this job.”

Another reality check comes at the academy. Push-ups are done in four sets of 37, intended to remind recruits of the fate of Hite, whose call name on the day he was shot was 4-Adam-37.

“The number is to honor Hite,” academy training Officer Paul Patterson said. “It’s a reminder to work hard here and honor the people you work with. That’s what he did.”

Patterson describes his role in the academy as teaching recruits “to be really good thinkers. Learning to fight takes a long time,” he said, “but learning to be a good thinker is something we can teach here.”

That’s where the experience of retired officers comes in, Nuñez said. “These (recruits) are indoctrinated from Day 1.”

TPD has been a relatively young department since the 1990s because of its quick growth, Nuñez said. The average time on the force for a TPD officer is five years.

The impact of the retirements is hard to quantify in terms of police services, but in the sheer number of people, it’s approaching 8 percent of the department in the last 10 months.

Eighty-six officers have left the department for a variety of reasons since January and another 23 are slated to leave by July under a city program called Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, Nuñez said. He anticipates more than the estimated number will leave.

Under the DROP program, police officers with more than 20 years of service can opt for an 8.5 percent annual return on the monthly pension contributions they make over a five-year period. The deal is in exchange for freezing their years of service, as far as pension tabulations are concerned, said Liz Martinez, coordinator of the city’s public safety retirement programs.

More than 240 officers have enrolled in the program, according to minutes of the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System local board. Each month a handful more sign on. The program was approved by the Legislature in 2005, but it was made retroactive to 2003.

The trouble in recruiting and the accelerated retirements confound the intentions of the City Council when it comes to police staffing.

The city’s Financial Sustainability Plan, approved by the council in 2006, stipulated that over a 10-year period, TPD was to get 40 new officers and 12 new support staffers.

But the plan assumed that the city budget would grow to $2.3 billion by 2016, bolstered by increasing sales tax revenues.

The city budgeted $1.9 billion this fiscal year, which began July 1, but it has so far had to cut more than $50 million because sales tax revenues have declined for the second year in a row.

As a result, no new police positions were added for this fiscal year.

Representatives of the Tucson Police Officers Association, the police union, have blamed city budget allocations for more than the lack of new positions.

Union president Officer Larry Lopez said at budget approval hearings in June that TPD would lose employees to Phoenix area departments because those departments pay more.

Pension board minutes, however, do not substantiate those transfers, and Lopez did not return calls for comment.

The ultimate fear is that staffing difficulties will affect police services; that it will take police too long to respond to a call in which a life is in danger.

Police Chief Kermit Miller and Assistant City Manager Richard Miranda, a former Tucson police chief, told the council earlier this month that the fear is largely unfounded.

It will probably take police longer to get to lower-priority calls such as burglaries, Miranda said, but there should be no effect on high-priority calls.

Call statistics presented to the council showed that it took police 3.7 minutes to get to the most serious calls from January to August 2008, a drop from 4.4 minutes over the same period last year.

This year, there have been 61 homicides, up from 51 last year, but all other violent crimes are down, police records show.

These are the stats that motivate officers like the retired McCarthy.

“I love this job,” he said. “I would be happy to be awarded a 40-year tenure pin. Those are rare. I have at least another five years in me.”

Police recruits shadow box during defense tactics training at the police academy Monday.

Police recruits shadow box during defense tactics training at the police academy Monday.

Recruits watch Officer Paul Patterson (right) demonstrate takedown techniques on Albert Baca, 28, during defense tactics training at the police academy Monday.

Recruits watch Officer Paul Patterson (right) demonstrate takedown techniques on Albert Baca, 28, during defense tactics training at the police academy Monday.



To volunteer for TPD as either a reserve officer or a civilian, call 791-4880. You must submit an initial application and pass a background investigation.

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