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Phoenix police worry staffing level is near ‘crisis’

PHOENIX — Presidents of two unions which represent Phoenix police officers said that the department is facing crisis-level staffing issues.

“Crisis, I would say so,” said Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. “We’ve been doing more with less, but we are at a tipping point. We have to hire more officers so that we can continue to deliver the level of service the residents expect and deserve,” he said.

The City of Phoenix implemented a hiring freeze in 2009 which prevented the department from replacing officers who either retired or left. Through attrition, the number of sworn officers has steadily decreased from roughly 3,300 five years ago to less than 2,900 now.

Adjustments have been made, among them, squads which would have seven to 10 officers now function with two officers. There are areas of the city that go unprotected by a patrol officer or have minimal police presence.

In addition, there has been a systematic elimination or reduction of specialized teams of officers and detectives who combat organized crime, drug trafficking, auto theft and other violent crimes. Neighborhood Enforcement Teams which are dedicated to combating crimes such as graffiti, gangs and drugs are at risk.

In an open letter to the public, Sgt. Sean Mattson, president of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, wrote that the record number of police officer-involved shootings in 2013 were directly related to the staffing crisis.

“Perhaps in part because criminal suspects feel emboldened by fewer officers on the street, or because perpetrators don’t hesitate to engage police officers operating without sufficient backup. …”

Both unions have met with city leaders to propose practical ways of solving the staffing situation, but “Every suggestion has been rejected,” said Mattson.

“When it comes to hiring, we have to look at what’s happening in the community. Calls for service are down, overall all crime is down,” said Acting City Manager Ed Zuercher. Each department in the city has been asked to cut back by 10 percent.

“The reason (crime stats are) down is because we had 500 more cops, we are ahead of the wave. Crime rates will go up, even more without any cops on the street,” said Mattson.

“Ninety-two percent of the department’s budget is personnel. If they want us to cut, the only way to do it is with layoffs,” said Mattson.