Major crimes in Payson dropped along with the number of officers on the beat in 2011.
The per-capita major crimes index reported to the FBI dropped 2 percent and calls to dispatchers plunged nearly 30 percent in 2011, according to a report released March 16.
“We returned to the trend of declining crime after a spike last year (2010),” said Payson Police Chief Don Engler.
However, despite the decline in the major crime index to 42.8 per 1,000 residents, domestic violence calls actually jumped 20 percent (see related story). Those domestic violence calls and arrests don’t figure into the major crimes category used to produce the uniform crime index.
Meanwhile, the Payson Police Department has struggled to fill open slots for patrol officers. Budgeted for 18 patrol officers, the department now has just 13. That puts the patrol division down by nearly one-third and the communications division down by almost 50 percent in personnel.
Paradoxically, the number of weekly reports filed has nearly doubled, since the records department remains the only fully staffed division.
Strangely enough, the lack of patrol officers this year has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in key categories of major crime.
In 2011, assault and aggravated assault dropped an impressive 20 percent.
However, some less common crimes increased, such as burglary (16 percent), theft (2 percent), and motor vehicle theft (40 percent).
One of the more unsettling increases came in the number of domestic violence calls, which accounts for the biggest single category of calls.
“Domestic violence calls average about one per day,” said Engler.
Often, crimes such as assault include domestic violence.
“It’s (domestic violence) a further way of defining a crime,” said Engler.
Throughout the year, the Payson Police Department had to cope with a shortage of officers.
The patrol division has an allotment for 18 officers, but only had 13 on duty throughout 2011. Officer David Vaughn retired and Officer John Huss and Sergeant John Heflin resigned. In 2010 a traffic officer retired and has not been replaced.
Engler said the reduction in the number of officers on the street might actually account for a portion of the decline in reported crime and calls to dispatch.
“A lot of crimes get reported by an officer in view of the activity,” said Engler.
In fact, many of the calls reported come from officers, not the community. When officers on patrol see suspicious activity, they call it into the dispatchers — which means it ends up on the crime statistics report.
Engler said that many members of the public aren’t as quick to call in suspicious activity because they don’t believe their observations are valid, said Engler. He hopes that more people will call in, especially since he finds himself short staffed.
“A lot of people feel we are too busy to take their calls,” said Engler, “I want people to know we are here to serve.”
The communications department has also suffered from a lack of personnel. The Payson Communications Center dispatches all 911 calls, including those to all fire departments from Payson to Hellsgate, Tonto Village, and Christopher/Kohl’s.
The communications center has the budget for 10 employees, but this year they worked with less than half of the staff they needed.
“We’re going to try to get back to 10 personnel in communications,” said Engler.
Last year three dispatchers resigned, and two others left communications.
Filling these job slots will not be easy, said the police chief. Dispatching is a 24-hour, seven-day a week job. Applicants must be available to work on holidays and weekends and not many have a willingness to give up their time, said Engler, but the most difficult part is the multi-tasking.
“A dispatcher has to be on the phone with a caller while typing up a request for back up at the same time,” he said, “the job is very stressful.”
The one department fully staffed — records — increased the amount of reports filed from 150 per week to 278 per week.