Still one lieutenant and four officers short of full staffing, Payson police officers no longer have much time for routine patrols and traffic details, said Police Chief Don Engler.
Engler hopes to hire a new lieutenant by October and other officers as soon as possible. The department has operated without a second in command since July of 2010 when Lt. Donny Garvin was demoted to sergeant after a series of sexting incidents. Garvin’s demotion, a string of officer terminations due to unbecoming behavior and continued difficulty in finding recruits has left many officers pulling double duty.
Officers often go from one call to the next throughout their 10-hour shifts, leaving less time for routine patrols and traffic enforcement. Not surprisingly, the number of traffic citations has dropped dramatically.
More unexpectedly, the rate of violent crimes has also declined in that same period.
Engler says he has no idea whether that trend will continue — but said that the department clearly needs a middle manager.
“It has been difficult,” Engler said of running the department without a lieutenant. “I think it will be much more healthy for the organization to get back to having a lieutenant.”
The lieutenant oversees the patrol and investigation divisions and runs the department when Engler is off.
Engler said he has struggled to wear both hats since Garvin’s demotion.
“I don’t have as much time as I would like to devote to our quality assurance, ensuring that we are providing those high-quality investigations that we have in the past,” he said. “A lot of things need that daily check and my time becomes limited.”
The new lieutenant will focus a lot of his or her time on bringing these areas up to snuff.
“It is definitely time to spread out some of the duties I have been doing and that have been shared between some of the sergeants,” he said.
Engler said he waited more than two years to look for a new lieutenant because he wanted the department to “develop” and he needed time to figure out what was best.
In the past, the department promoted from within.
This time, it opened the position to all qualified Arizona officers.
“Basically the reasoning behind that is just to find the very best candidate to fill the position,” said Engler.
Several people have applied for the spot, including from the PPD.
When Garvin was demoted in 2010, few local officers had the qualifications to take his spot. Part of letting the department “develop” was giving those officers time to improve their skills and training.
The job demands leadership skills and Engler wants someone who embraces community policing.
The 26 officers still on the force do a good job of serving the community, he said. But finding new officers with the same service attitude has been tough.
The PPD has held several open testing calls for new officers and even has a few good applicants. However, none made it through the academy.
The last officer the PPD hired was Rory Vaughn, who transferred from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office four months ago.
The PPD will hold another round of testing the third week of September.
Finding applicants who pass the background check has been the biggest challenge.
A candidate’s traffic and criminal records are examined along with their drug use. They must also take a lie detector test, psychological evaluation and medical examination.
Even if they can check all those boxes, an applicant who also has common sense and a good work ethic is hard to find, he said.
The department is authorized to have 30 officers. The roster has shrunk to 26, with sergeants Dean Faust and Don Kasl due to retire soon.
While the department is “surviving,” it needs more officers to help shoulder responsibilities.
“I think we have done a good job of sharing the duties, but it can’t continue, we have got to get a lieutenant in there so there is a person that is daily responsible for those middle management duties,” he said.
The department has adopted a new system for scheduling, which involves staggering shifts to cover high-activity periods. Traditionally, certain squads work the same hours to develop better teamwork. Now, officers frequently work for different sergeants.
Peak call times include the early evening hours, between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. and Friday night between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Tuesdays are also strangely busy as well as lunchtime, Engler said.
With officers taking more calls than ever, it leaves them with less time for routine patrols.
“Any officer-generated activity is suffering ... because the officers we do have are having to handle the call load.”
Traffic citations have gone down as a result.
The Uniform Crime Index, however, showed a decline in violent crime in the last year.
For 2010, the index sat at 43.5. In 2011, it went down to 42.8.
The index takes into account the number of homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, assaults, thefts, burglaries and motor vehicle thefts.