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Cities nationwide face police shortages

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque isn’t the only place where the thin blue line is thinner than it should be.

Officials from Portland, Ore., to Philadelphia have said their departments are in dire straits because of a shortage of officers.

Last week, police officials in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Portland told the Journal they are trying to recruit more officers to grow the size of their forces to the number they are authorized to have, which is proving to be difficult.

Albuquerque officials have been saying the same thing for several years as the size of the force has plummeted.

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The Albuquerque Police Department had 1,100 officers in 2009 and now has fewer than 850. The department is budgeted for 1,000 officers.

Even with intense recruiting efforts, it could take years to reach that target number, given the number of officers who are about to qualify for retirement, police officials say.

A number of departments around the country, including Houston and Dallas, report being hundreds of officers short, and an increase in crime has been blamed on officer shortages. Smaller New Mexico police departments, such as those in Taos and Santa Fe, are hiring. The Farmington Police Department is offering signing bonuses between $3,000 and $15,000.

Why do so many departments say they are understaffed?

Police officials and police staffing experts say it’s the result of a combination of factors:

⋄  Police departments grew in the 1980s and 1990s and those officers are now retiring, but an economic downturn that started about 10 years ago prevented departments from preparing for those retirements.

⋄  Public perception of policing and more opportunities in the private sector have steered some away from the field.

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⋄  And there are other causes – from poor leadership to changes in pension programs – which can vary from department to department.

But the number of officers compared with the number a department is budgeted for doesn’t always tell the whole story.

“It’s a very rare situation when you go to a police department and they say they are fully staffed,” said Mitchell Weinzetl, the assistant director of education for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Departments’ reports of understaffing can prompt local policymakers to provide an agency with more resources, he said.

Weinzetl said an understaffed police department may need to do more than just recruit new officers. And it could be an opportunity to bring the department’s practices in line with what the community expects from its force.

Understaffed departments, he said, “have to figure out what services they’re not going to provide anymore.”

Boom and bust

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a hiring push in the Portland, Ore., Police Bureau, said Sgt. Jeff Helfrich.

America’s economy was good. And incarceration rates were booming as American police departments battled the war on drugs.

Now, officers hired during that push are retiring. And a hiring freeze in 2008 prevented Portland from offsetting those retirements with new recruits.

Portland, which is slightly bigger than Albuquerque with an estimated population of 620,000, is currently authorized for 950 officers, but there are 62 vacancies, and police officials don’t think they’ll be able to fill them at a pace fast enough to keep up with retirements. The department is forecasting that it will be understaffed until 2025, Helfrich said.

“We’re reaching out and showing people it’s a good profession to be in,” he said. “But it’s going to be a while before we get fully staffed.”

Alexander Weiss, who last year completed a study in Albuquerque that determined the police force needed 1,000 officers and to restructure itself, also has completed a national study that linked understaffed police departments to the economy.

When the recession hit Phoenix, which has an estimated population of 1.5 million, city officials called for a hiring freeze that lasted six years, from 2009 until March 2015. The number of police officers in that time dropped from a high of 3,400 officers.

The department now has 2,794 officers and is budgeted for 3,268. That means it is about 15 percent below its budgeted force, nearly the same as Albuquerque, said Phoenix Police Lt. Anthony Lopez.

While the economic downturn decimated the ranks, a quick rebound appears to be on the way for Phoenix.

Its numbers have been growing steadily because the department is putting between 20 and 25 officers in a four-month police academy each month, Lopez said. That means the department may be fully staffed in a couple years.

 Albuquerque and Rio Rancho police cadets pray during their graduation ceremony at the Kiva Auditorium in October 2015.

Albuquerque and Rio Rancho police cadets pray during their graduation ceremony at the Kiva Auditorium in October 2015. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

That’s not the case for Albuquerque, where a staffing study draft obtained recently indicates the department won’t be fully staffed for the next decade or longer. The analysis compared the number of officers who will qualify for retirement to the estimated 80 police academy graduates per year from now until 2031. Police officials have said that would be the worst-case scenario, and they are hoping to get lateral hires or return-to-work legislation, which allows returning officers to keep their pensions, to grow the ranks more quickly.

Albuquerque police currently are operating under a court-ordered reform effort in response to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found a pattern of excessive force. But APD, like Phoenix, said many people are interested in joining the ranks.

“We’ve had a lot of reporters call and ask about the national conversation of police incidents after coming out of a hiring freeze,” Lopez said. “But we’re seeing very healthy numbers of people signing up. Contrary to the perception that there is a large concern about being a police officer, in Phoenix we don’t see that.”

Albuquerque has lost a similar percentage of officers as Phoenix. The department didn’t face a hiring freeze, but it did undergo pay cuts.

While Albuquerque police are 15 percent below what they are budgeted for, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, which shares headquarters with APD, is fully staffed at 300 officers – but its recruiting needs are far less.

Weinzetl said there’s more than just the economy that affects staffing, and it would take a deep analysis to determine why APD is struggling while BCSO is not.

The quality of an agency’s leadership, culture within the department, changes to pensions, styles of policing, policies and other factors can affect one agency more than another. Also, the BCSO doesn’t have to wear lapel cameras, while APD does.

“You’re talking about 50 different things intertwined,” he said.

Making do with less

As understaffed police departments try to recruit new officers, they need to spread their resources differently to ensure patrol officers can handle the call volume, Weinzetl said.

“If you don’t (have 1,000 officers), you have to figure out what services you’re not going to provide anymore,” he said.

For example, police can limit responding to unconfirmed burglary alarms, especially at places that have a history of false alarms, expand the police reports submitted online, and not respond to minor car wrecks without injuries, Weinzetl said. That would free up officers to better handle calls for service.

And you can put officers who patrol on bicycle, SWAT officers and motorcycle cops back to patrol, he said.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden is emphasizing some initiatives to try to free up officers for more serious calls. For example, people can make police reports online for crimes such as vandalism, theft and telephone harassment. And reports for wrecks without injuries can be filed at police stations. The department is preparing to launch an app that would allow people to easily make those types of reports from their cellphones.

Salt Lake City police officials said they are exploring similar options.

And Eden has asked for community feedback on how to best handle false alarms and minor wrecks without injuries.

Last year, the chief unveiled a program called Police and Community Together that will take some officers out of their assignments at police headquarters and send them to the area commands on community policing teams. The plan hasn’t been implemented yet, but a spokeswoman said the department is preparing to launch a pilot program with a community policing team in one of the city’s area commands.

But there has been some public questioning lately whether the understaffed department is in step with how it should focus its limited resources.

Recently, a team of officers made headlines for bartering with homeless people to take their possessions in exchange for crack, then arresting them on drug possession charges.

That’s led city councilors to question the value of such undercover operations, especially given staffing levels.

Eden defended the practice and said the operation was executed in response to complaints about drug dealing from nearby businesses and residents.

“We have a robust recruiting program, renewed efforts to push for return to work and are looking at a strengthened lateral academy to further supplement our ranks,” Eden said in an email. “We are evaluating best practices from around the nation when it comes utilizing our current resources and soliciting feedback from our department and community, specifically through our Community Policing Councils, to determine what resources and priorities are most important to them.”

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