Ariz. city, police scrambling to hire, retain more officers

Ariz. city, police scrambling to hire, retain more officers

By Joe Ferguson The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. — It was duty that brought Sgt. Tony Archibald before the Tucson City Council last week, he said.

The officer believed he had to personally inform the council that the number of commissioned officers had dipped below 800, further deepening a staffing crisis inside the Tucson Police Department.

“All police officers are required to take an oath when they are handed their badge. This oath is something that we take very seriously. We sign up for this job to help the public and defend the citizens of this city,” said Archibald, who also serves as the vice president of the Tucson Police Officers’ Association.

“Unfortunately we’ve reached a level where we can no longer serve the community in the way that they deserve,” he said.

Two years ago, Archibald said, the city had 100 more officers patrolling the streets than it does now.

“By many accounts, this is the lowest number we’ve seen since the late 1980s,” he told the council.

It isn’t just a talking point for the officers’ union.

Police Chief Chris Magnus, City Manager Mike Ortega, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and members of the Tucson City Council all agree that there is a personnel crisis at the department, with Magnus saying the departures of good officers to other agencies for better pay is a critical problem facing the department now.

The looming issue is how best to address the problem of hiring and retaining more officers and more specifically how much it will cost.

Magnus notes that it can take more than a year to get new hires trained and patrolling the street and at a cost of $100,000 per recruit.

“I’ve already called it a crisis, I think this is very serious right now. “This is well below where we should be as a city,” Magnus said.

It is a crisis that has had a slow burn over time with the number of officers leaving the department slowly ramp from about six officers a month to about eight a month, he confirmed.

Last month, Magnus outlined a $2.1 million strategy designed to increase officer retention and improve recruitment efforts.

Strategies outlines in his memo include lowering the number of recruits in the next training class from 35 to 21, offering a targeted five percent increase to roughly 450 officers and detectives with three or more years of experience, hiring more community service officers, as well as starting a take-home vehicle program for some officers.

On reducing the number of officers in the training program, Magnus noted that a new police officer would not perform a single hour of public service during the first 10 months of training — while at the same time costing the city about $65,600 in wages for each recruit. Reducing the class would save about $1 million. The money the department saves in a smaller recruit class can be used elsewhere to retain officers already on the streets.

Other aspects of his proposal included hiring a number of “community service officers” whose primary duties are related to responding in marked police cars to calls related to burglary, traffic accidents, and other non-emergency issues. He said the department could immediately hire 11 more CSOs — increasing the number from 32 to 43 — who would free up certified officers to perform law enforcement duties.

Magnus argued in his proposal that not all of the officers leaving the department were a sign that there were problems with pay. The department, he wrote, can estimate the number of expected normal departures each year — those from retirements and terminations — which he described as a “healthy cycle of attrition. About half of the departures from the department in the last two years were from that type of turnover.

Another type of turnover comes from “nonprogrammed” departures, which are resignations that are not entirely expected. He offered some of those resignations were actually healthy for the department.

“Either the person did not fit with the organizational values or they recognized they were not going to meet standards and chose to leave before termination,” Magnus wrote in his memo.

Magnus said the most costly form of turnover for the department is the number of nonprogrammed departures of high-functioning officers who leave for “greener pastures.” He said these departures, which he called “dysfunctional turnover,” have been increasing in the department for the last two years. In fiscal years 2016 and 2017 there have been total of 28 of these departures, he wrote.

“This is the target group in need of focused retention efforts. Retention of these officers is a benefit not only to the health and productivity of the organization, but enables the department to provide better service to the community.”

Magnus said giving 450 officers and sergeants a 5 percent pay increase would cost the department $2.5 million, but some of that would be covered by savings from the reduced training class.

In a memo to council, Ortega said other agencies are luring away officers with more lucrative officers.

“The reasons for the increased turnover are probably several, but from exit interviews and many conversations with those leaving our organization, pay and the wage stagnation,” Ortega said.

“We are now losing on average 8 officers per month and staffing is at a critical level,” Ortega said. “We must recruit/hire closer to 120 officers per year for the next few years to stay even and make up for not getting the additional 20 officers last year.”

Ortega said while he backs the entire budget request aimed at shoring up staffing issues made by Magnus, but the isn’t enough money in the budget for his entire request.

At this point, Ortega has backed $1.2 million in additional funding that he believes would have the greatest impact.

The city manager said he would focus primarily on hiring more officers and CSOs.

What’s missing? The proposed five percent pay raise for officers.

Ortega said the city can’t currently afford to give them the raise, but said it is a top priority to identify possible funding sources to increase pay for officers.

In an unusual move, Ortega has asked the council for permission to move forward with those changes immediately rather than to wait for the start of the fiscal cycle.

“There is some risk in making this move before July 1, but the risk associated with continued loss of police personnel is greater,” Ortega concluded.

The two proposals are vastly different than those offered by the officers’ union, which offered a $3.9 million proposal of its own.

Archibald said one of the key strategies was to focus on pay “compression” that has built up over the years without step pay increases. Many officers, they say, have little to no differences in pay regardless of their seniority inside the organization or specialized skills.

The union is concerned that in the next fiscal year that 50 officers will be eligible to retire and have little incentive to stay longer in the organization, making the problem worse.

TPD’s staffing levels have frequently been brought up on the campaign trail last year, with many of the council candidates saying increasing staffing would be a top priority if elected. This includes now Councilman Paul Durham, who replaced outgoing Councilwoman Karin Uhlich.

On Friday, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild offered a full-throated pledge to increase the number of officers on Tucson streets.

“For too long, our police department has had too few officers. Working with my colleagues on the council and city staff, this year, we will address both recruitment and retention at TPD,” Rothschild said.

©2018 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)