Funds tight for po­lice

Front Range law en­force­ment tries to match pop­u­la­tion.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

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-

sus Bureau.

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.”

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