The shorthanded Payson police force in 2008 handled a steady rise in emergency calls — but still made fewer arrests and investigated fewer serious crimes.
The number of major crimes reported declined about 7 percent, declining to 44 crimes per 1,000 population.
Despite that drop in crime, the department has pushed through a sharp increase in new hires — with three officers in the academy and two officers just finishing up their on-the-job training period. Those hires will boost the number of officers in the department by about 19 percent and a number of them came in the face of the townwide hiring freeze.
Not all the news on crime in Chief Don Engler’s annual report was good, however, domestic violence cases jumped 85 percent to 186 and drunken driving arrests jumped 18 percent to 174.
Those increases stood out against the decline in most other serious crimes, including a 37 percent decrease in burglaries and a 25 percent drop in assaults.
Strangely enough, as crime went down — calls went up.
Dispatchers fielded 54,000 calls in 2008, about 1 percent more than the previous year. Fewer than half of those calls resulted in the dispatch of an officer, although the 24,233 dispatches represented a 6 percent increase.
Officers made 1,478 arrests, which represents about 6 percent of their calls.
Payson proved a relatively quiet little town even when it came to traffic statistics in 2008, despite the rise in drunken driving arrests.
Officers responded to 473 traffic accidents, more than one a day. But that represented an 11 percent drop from 2007.
Officers also wrote fewer tickets — although they still wrote more tickets than they made arrests. The 1,693 citations issued represented a 15 percent drop from the previous year.
Chief Engler, in a presentation before the council, noted that he was surprised by the drop in accidents in the face of the decline in citations. He said normally, he would assume that the more tickets officers write, the more drivers will slow down and reduce accidents. But in this case, fewer tickets resulted in fewer accidents.
Engler said the number of officers on the force has risen from a low of 26 to 31, as the department has filled vacancies. The town council has authorized a total force of 32 officers, but that was when the department also policed Star Valley.
The town has since lost that contract to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Payson had bumped up the authorized police manpower when it first got the contract.
Engler said he could leave open the existing slot and not fill a vacancy that will be created soon as the result of the retirement of a senior officer.
However, he indicated he’ll try to get the council to let him hire several more officers and bring the force up to its full, authorized strength.
Despite the drop in serious crime, the rising call volume has stressed the front line officers, said Engler.
The department has 31 sworn officers at present, but only 16 of them qualify as first responders — available to roll when that 911 call comes in, said Engler.
Since police must be available 24/7, it takes at least three or four officers on the payroll to provide one cop on an around-the-clock basis.
Dividing the 16 first responders by the number of arrests, shows that the average officer makes one or two arrests a week with the current staffing levels.
Dividing the total call volume by those same 16 officers, suggests that the front-line officers handle about four calls on an average day.
Engler said he had adopted a “hire local” strategy to try to cope with a relatively high turnover rate. He said his last 12 hires have all had strong local roots.
invests about $30,000 in training a new officer, which includes time spent in the police academy and the initial time spent on the job learning the ropes from a veteran officer.
Previously the town would often lose a freshly trained officer to the Department of Public Safety, which pays more.
So the department made two changes to reduce the turnover. The first was to give strong preference to applicants who lived in Payson or had strong Rim Country connections.
The second was to add extra pay for training to move officers along on the pay scale more quickly.
The $2,500 pay boost at three, five and seven years get patrol officers to the roughly $65,000 annual top rate within the span of a typical 20-year career.
Higher ranking officers make more.
“At one point we lost three officers to DPS,” said Engler, “so we needed to figure out how to retain officers.”
Engler said he would push to keep the two extra positions added to handle the Star Valley contract.
He said the standard advocated by national police organizations suggests officers should handle about 400 to 500 calls per year.
Based on only 16 first responders, Payson patrol officers handled about 1,500 calls each last year.
Based on the 31 officers on the payroll, the town had 774 calls per officer.
Either number remains well above the ideal workload, established by national organizations, said Engler.
Engler said that even though the department has added staff as an exemption to the town’s hiring freeze, he has still worked to cut the budget.
He said that the department’s updated budget for 2008-09 stood at $4.9 million, a 13 percent drop. So far this year, he estimated expenses are running about 15 percent behind the adopted budget.
However, he noted that a big chunk of the savings came from the long stretch when the department was understaffed. But with the new hires, the department’s force of sworn officers will have risen by about 19 percent.