Funds tight for police
Front Range law enforcement tries to match population.
As Denver’s public safety leaders drive downtown, they can’t help but notice the construction cranes stretching above the city.
Those cranes are a sign of the challenges they face as more people pack into the city, bringing crime, fire hazards, medical emergencies and other issues with them.
All of this growth is happening as Denver’s public safety agencies still are trying to dig themselves out of the cuts made during the Great Recession — a period when the city saw its emergency services fall behind in recruiting and maintaining equipment.
The police chief, fire chief, sheriff and 911 director say they think about catching up and keeping up all the time.
“It’s going to precipitate a downstream effect on safety services in a lot of ways,” said Stephanie O’Malley, director of Denver’s safety department, which manages all of those departments. “You can’t send an engine when you need a ladder truck. It’s paying attention to the details of the outcomes of the population explosion. What does that mean? We have to safely and responsibly respond. It has to be right.”
Denver’s population grew nearly 14 percent between 2010 and 2015 when 682,545 people were counted, and in 2015 Denver recorded the fastest-growing population among the nation’s largest cities, according to the U.S. Cen-
And city planners don’t expect it to slow down in the next 25 years.
Public safety officials don’t just dwell on the growth within Denver’s borders. They watch the entire metropolitan area because commuters make the city’s population swell almost 30 percent during the work week, O’Malley said during a November presentation at the annual Public Safety luncheon.
It has been hard to keep up.
For example, the Denver Police Department’s calls for service have increased 9 percent since 2006, with officers responding to more than a half million calls in 2015, according to statistics provided by the department.
Meanwhile, the number of officers dropped 6 percent to 1,441 from 1,539 during the same period.
The department also held off purchasing new cars, causing its fleet to deteriorate to the point that 222 officers had to be paired in cars while patrolling the streets, Denver Police Chief Robert White said during an October budget presentation to City Council.
Police departments across Colorado have faced the same trend.
“You’re right about the impact of the recession,” said Frederick Police Chief Gary Barbour, who is president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. “It was something that impacted all of us. Now, the inflow of population is having an effect.”
In Frederick, a bedroom community for Denver and Boulder, the population jumped more than 30 percent between 2010 and 2015 with 11,413 people living in town.
Barbour said he needs to add five officers to his force of 18 to keep up with more and more calls for service. But the problem is funding.
While houses are being built, the commercial and retail boom hasn’t followed in Frederick, and the department is funded by sales tax revenue, he said.
“You’re having to struggle to adequately staff your 24 /7 obligation to patrol the town,” Barbour said. “What’s difficult to figure out is where do we get the revenue to pay for the additional people we need?”
In October, the Colorado Springs Police Department suspended its gang and impact units because its patrol forces were short about 50 people. The department’s leaders blamed cutbacks suffered between 2008 and 2010 that prevented them from hiring new officers when others retired or resigned.
Meanwhile, the city’s population grew 14.5 percent between 2006 and 2015.
In Pueblo, hiring freezes in 2010 and 2013 have contributed to an officer shortage. As a result, the city has a backlog in calls and more lengthy response times, according to a report in The Pueblo Chieftain. The city had hoped voters would approve a half-cent sales tax hike to help boost the ranks, but that effort failed on the November ballot.
That city’s population increased 6 percent between 2006 and 2015 to 109,412.
How Denver’s safety department handles the growth and plans for its future will impact every other agency in the city. Last month, City Council approved a $518 million public safety budget for 2017, representing 39 percent of the money spent from the general fund on core city operations.
When it comes to figuring out how to keep pace, law enforcement leaders find themselves assembling a complicated puzzle.
In Denver, the police department went three years without hiring a new officer. Since 2013, the department has been steadily recruiting, but it will see its first true increase in manpower in 2017 after City Council approved a boost in its authorized strength to 1,503.
And if the police department gets more officers, the 911 center would need more dispatchers to direct them and the jail needs more space for people arrested.
Meanwhile, the 911 center, which is on track to answer nearly 955,000 calls this year, has outgrown its operations center. More people and more cell phones have led to a 14 percent increase in calls since 2008, according to statistics provided by the safety department.
Because of the fast growth, Denver 911 is behind the national standard of answering 95 percent of its calls in 15 seconds or less, said Athena Butler, the city’s 911 director.
City Council approved the hiring of 10 new call takers, which will fill two 24hour positions, in 2017. And the strategic plan calls for hiring 10 to 12 new call takers per year to catch up.
The city’s safety leaders don’t just watch the numbers. They look at maps to see where people are moving and what kind of houses are being built.
In the most recent construction boom, the population is expanding downtown and in the northeast past Stapleton and toward Denver International Airport.
Officials are watching to see whether they need more police officers in those areas or need to start finding money to build new fire stations.
To handle increasing demand downtown, the fire department decided it wasted resources when it sent a fire engine on every call.
Since medical emergencies drive the fire department’s calls to downtown Denver, the department deployed an SUV that was equipped to respond to medical emergencies such as broken legs, Chief Eric Tade said. That leaves ladder trucks and engines available for bigger emergencies.
It is this sort of thinking that officials hope will allow them to adapt to the city’s growth while providing responsible, affordable services.
“We’re ‘Rah, rah, rah,’ for our city,” O’Malley said, “but at the same time we have to have a conscience toward what it means for safety and how soon it’s happening.”