Is the Phoenix Police Department's shrinking force hurting public safety?

PHOENIX - The Phoenix Police Department’s shrinking force is leading to higher violent crime, rising response times and more officer-involved shootings, according to officers, union officials and a former commander.

In the past five years, Phoenix has not hired a class of new officers. The number of sworn officers has decreased by more than 500, and several hundred more are expected to retire in the next few years.

“Staffing levels are at a point, in my opinion, where your officers aren’t safe,” said Jeff Hynes, a retired Phoenix commander who’s now a professor at Glendale Community College and Arizona State University. “If your officers aren’t safe, your community isn’t safe."

The ABC15 Investigators requested years of data and statistics from Phoenix police. It shows:

  • Violent crime has spiked in the past two years.
  • Since 2011, response times have increased every year and in every category.
  • The number of officer-involved shootings is on a record pace.

“These are trends that really frighten me,” Hynes said. “If these trends don’t turn around, you’re going to see us get into a hole that’s going to take a generation to get out of.”

INCREASE IN VIOLENT CRIME, RESPONSE TIMES AND POLICE SHOOTINGS

Since 2010, violent crime in Phoenix has risen every year, including a 17 percent increase in 2012 that held into 2013.

In raw numbers, that means roughly 1,400 more violent crimes (murder, rape, armed robbery and aggravated assault) were reported. A Phoenix police spokesman acknowledged the noticeable increase, but attributed some of the jump to a change in the way that assaults were classified by state law.

Phoenix police also released the most recent three years of their median response times. The times have increased in all three categories every year.

The average time for a priority 1 call is now 5.58 minutes. A priority 1 call is considered a crime in progress.

“Years ago, the target rate for violent crimes was three-and-a-half minutes,” said Joe Clure, patrol officer and president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the rank-and-file union. “Looking at this and seeing five-and-a-half or almost six minute response times, that’s quite a bit of time.”

Asked if that was pushing it, he answered “pushing it, in my opinion, quite a bit.”

Officer-involved shootings are also on a record pace.

In the first quarter of the year, Phoenix police said there were eight police shootings. A spokesman said the most in city history is 31 in one year.

Professor and retired commander Jeff Hynes said he believes the higher number of shootings could be attributed to the decrease in manpower.

“The bad guys don’t seem to be afraid of the officers,” Hynes said. “You’ve got an increase in violent crime in your community, and you’re reducing the number of officers that you have? A doesn’t equal B here.”

Officials with Phoenix police said they don’t believe this year’s spike is clearly attributable to fewer officers. In the past, a spokesman said they’ve seen periods with a higher amount of shootings followed by long months without a police shooting.

The department is currently finalizing new protocols that will allow them to better investigate and analyze the causes of officer-involved shootings.

HOW PHOENIX GOT HERE

The highest level of staffing in Phoenix history was in 2008, when the department had 3,375 officers.

But during the recession, Phoenix froze the hiring of all new officers. The last class to come through was in 2009 with 58 recruits.

Since, the numbers have steadily dropped every year. As of April 2014, Phoenix had 2856 sworn police officers.

That number will continue to drop as another 200 officers are expected to retire by the end of 2016. That means Phoenix will be down to roughly 2,600 sworn officers for a city with nearly 1.5 million people.

That’s an officer-to-population ratio that falls well below most major U.S. cities.

“I don’t care how you slice it, that’s going to come down to a reduction in service,” Clure said.

So where’s the bottom?

Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher said that the city will hire new classes of officers as soon as it can financially. Right now, Phoenix is in the midst of another deficit -- $37 million.

“We are looking at late 2015 and early 2016 at this point,” Zuercher said. However, he said that’s not guaranteed.

And once they do open the academy, it takes time to fully train an officer.

“That process takes 18 months from the moment you start hiring or taking applications and put someone out solo-capable on the street,” Clure said.

Phoenix police said the department was just cleared to start the process to hire 15 transfers from other departments. No other hiring is certain until new academy classes begin.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com.

 

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