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Sunday, May 6, 2007
APD Has Grown, but the Number of Officers Assigned to Service Calls Decreased
By T.J. Wilham
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
The Albuquerque Police Department has grown nearly 12 percent since 2002, but the number of officers who take calls for service full time has fallen slightly.
And it's taking them longer to get to your house when you call.
According to a study conducted by the Journal, the percentage of the department dedicated to answering calls for service full time is down from about 49 percent to 43.5 percent.
Meanwhile, response times on average have increased by nearly three minutes since 2002.
Patrol officers who handle calls such as fights in progress, prowlers and domestic violence say they are jumping from call to call and can't patrol their beats.
So, where are all the cops?
DWI units, school resource officers, the SWAT team, gang unit, K9 unit, horse patrol, nuisance abatement and air support are just some of APD's 18 specialized units.
Police Chief Ray Schultz says he isn't happy with response times and wants to improve them. He argues, however, that his department is properly deployed and disputes some of the numbers in the Journal analysis.
The increase in response times has nothing to do with fewer officers being assigned to take calls full time, he said. Rather, Schultz said, it is due to factors such as population growth and congested traffic.
And, while up over 2002, this year's response times are the best since 2004.
Schultz said specialized units make the department more efficient and help on response times because they take responsibilities away from traditional beat cops, reducing the number of calls for service through proactive policing.
When Mayor Martin Chávez took office in December 2001, one of his first pledges was to increase the size of APD. That next year, the force had 893 officers, and 438 of them about half were assigned to take calls for service full time.
The mayor pledged to increase the force to 1,000 cops, and, after nearly hitting that figure, he increased it to 1,100, a goal Schultz wants to meet by the end of the year.
In the same time, the percentage dedicated to taking service calls has slowly decreased. APD now has 998 officers, and 434 of them 43.5 percent are assigned to take calls full time.
Officer Andrew Vocasek has noticed.
Vocasek has spent the past 3 1/2 years on patrol during the graveyard shift in the Southeast, arguably one of the busiest areas for a beat cop. He said there are more calls and fewer officers to take them.
"I have noticed that I am apologizing to citizens more and more because it's taken us so long," he said. "People expect that the police department should be there in a reasonable amount of time, and we are not able to do so because of our manning levels."
Vocasek is assigned to beat 331, everything west of San Mateo, north of Coal, east of Jefferson and south of Lomas. But he spends most of his time taking calls all across the Southeast Heights.
"I would love to get around and walk my beat and make contact with people," he said. "The only time right now we contact people is when they call for us or we are dispatched."
Recently, a group of younger officers at an Albuquerque Police Officers Association meeting voiced concerns about the number of beat cops.
A motion was made and seconded to take a "no confidence" vote on Schultz. It will be taken this month.
Union leaders won't publicly criticize Schultz but say there is a problem.
"We have got to find a way to get more call-taking cops in the field," said APOA President Ron Olivas. "Our membership is coming to us telling us they are getting their butt kicked out there."
Specialized units like SWAT, K9 and DWI are assigned specific roles. Generally, a dispatcher doesn't have the authority to dispatch them to general calls for service.
When they are not busy, special unit members are supposed to volunteer to take calls, and police officials say they do.
Beat cops say that's rare.
Vocasek says that specialized units frequently do back him up but that, most of the time, a beat cop is dispatched as the primary officer.
The Journal requested a breakdown of how many calls for service specialized units took last year. Department spokesman John Walsh said it is impossible to generate such numbers. He has also been unable to provide a roster of all officers and their assignments.
Schultz says the study conducted by the Journal is deceiving because it takes a "snapshot" of his department during a given day.
City Councilor Brad Winter has also requested a list of all of the officers and their assignments. He suspects that, for years, the police department has been "padding" its numbers to meet goals set by the mayor.
He said he suspects the department is including people in its head count who are not full-time officers.
"Who cares about the numbers? If we have a problem, let's work together to fix the problem instead of saying we have more officers than what we really do," Winter said.
"Right now, people's perception is that they are not getting any response to their calls."
Olivas said that specialized units are needed but that, to staff them, "resources are getting pulled from the field."
The union leader said the obvious solution is to add more officers and put them on the streets. Another solution could be to have some specialized officers also work patrol.
Olivas said an assessment should be done on the units' roles and workload.
"No matter what the assignment is, these cops are going to bust their butts, and I know that all of the guys in these units are busting their butts," Olivas said. "But, perhaps, we are becoming overspecialized."
Experts say it's easy for a police department to become overspecialized and get away from the basic job of taking calls for service.
Over the years, demands on law enforcement have increased, citizens and politicians want specific problems addressed and they want faster service.
In response, police chiefs have created specialized units.
In New Mexico, a prime example is the DWI problem and all of the police units created to tackle it, experts say.
"Any time you start specializing to curtail certain types of crime, you are always robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Rodney Brewer a former Kentucky State Police deputy commissioner and instructor at the University of Louisville's Southern Police Institute. "The dangers with specialization is that you wind up with less people answering the radio.
"With all of the good that you are doing, at the end of the day, you still have calls for service that are coming in that have to be answered. Specialized policing has its place, but you can overspecialize yourself out of business if you are not careful."
Experts say the advantages of specialized units are that they are more proactive at preventing crime and thus help cut the number of calls for service.
"If you get rid of a specialized unit, your calls for service could go sky high in a couple of months because you are not addressing specific problems," said William Walsh, director of the Southern Police Institute. "It sounds like the Albuquerque Police Department is trying to be very proactive."
Schultz says his department is not overspecialized.
He points out that APD has 31 vacancies, all of which are "inside" jobs or in specialized units.
The chief also argues that beat cops now have fewer responsibilities.
Civilian units for prisoner transport and homeless response, created under Schultz's administration, are now doing things beat cops have traditionally done.
Schultz said that, on average, beat cops take eight calls a day. He said he has designed his department to run efficiently, maximizing every officer's time.
"Do I have people sitting around getting fat and happy? No. The community wants officers out there working. We are not paying officers to sit around in doughnut shops for eight hours a day. They are getting paid to do a job."
Unlike other big cities, Albuquerque police respond to traffic accidents without injuries, they use their lights and sirens to answer calls of an animal in danger and they respond to burglar alarms.
Schultz said that, if his department didn't have to respond to all those calls, response times would improve.
But he said he wouldn't change a thing because he knows what the community expects.
Schultz said there will soon be a sixth police station on the Northwest side. He also said he wants to create seven shifts of officers next year, designed to work when the majority of the calls come in.
These changes, he said, will cut response times.
"The fact that I have (District Attorney) Kari Brandenburg with more cases than she can prosecute; the fact that I have got (Jail Director) John Dantis telling me, 'Hey, stop arresting people 'cause the jail is busting at the seams'... tells me that we are out there doing our job," Schultz said.
"No one works harder than my officers."
Every year, Albuquerque police officers assigned to take calls full time bid for assignments. To compare APD's staffing level to previous years, the Journal examined the final assignments published every March. To analyze the total number of officers, the Journal took data APD submitted to the FBI annually. The number of officers for this year was provided by APD. Response times and number of calls for service were provided by APD.
Police officials said this type of analysis can be deceiving because it is a "snapshot" of what the department looked like on a particular day. They also said the numbers from this year's bid process didn't include as many as 23 officers going through on-the-job training. The total used in the story for patrol includes those officers.