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Arizona Department Of Public Safety Faces Staffing Shortage

DPS Highway Patrol Officer Estevan Roman has been with the agency for nine years.
(Photo by Nick Blumberg)
DPS Highway Patrol Officer Estevan Roman has been with the agency for nine years.

During the great recession, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, our state police agency, took a beating. Hundreds of positions were empty and there were no new officers coming in. The picture is nowhere near as bleak as it used to be, but as the agency adds to its ranks some are concerned DPS can’t add people quickly enough to make up for previous losses and upcoming retirements.

Officer Estevan Roman has been with DPS for nine years. While patrolling the southbound route 51 earlier this week, he stopped a driver going 80 miles an hour.

“Where you headed to right now?”

“Going home, just got off work.”

Roman gets back in his car to run the guy’s drivers license. Turns out, he has an outstanding warrant in Yavapai County for an earlier traffic violation he didn’t take care of. It’s not serious enough of a crime to arrest him, so Roman lets the driver off with a written warning.

“Where’s my nearest backup, if this guy — you see how big he is — wanted to put up a fight, he didn’t want to go to jail if it was extraditable," Roman said. "It’d be nice if you had another person in the area to help you out.”

Roman said at any given time, there are only a handful of other highway patrol officers working, and if there’s a huge pileup or someone threatening suicide that shuts down a freeway, they might all be occupied on a single call. The staffing shortage has been a problem for years. Roman described what it was like during the recession.

“We had, like we always do, a fair amount of retirements," he said. "But unlike now, we could not hire anybody to replace them.”

Bart Graves is a DPS spokesman. He said when state revenue bottomed out, DPS went through four years with no academies, meaning no new officers to replace people who moved up or retired.

“We still have a little over 100 sworn vacancies statewide," Graves said. "It’s much better than it was during the height of the recession when we were well over 200, approaching 300 officers down. We have 41 cadets in the academy right now in various stages of the academy, that’s a good thing for us.”

The staffing gaps are felt most acutely in rural areas, especially in Coconino and Cochise counties. And even now that DPS is hiring, there are still many officers who are ready to retire.

“The agency is aware of at least 100, I think just over 100 officers that will be retiring between now and the end of 2016," said Jimmy Chavez, president of the Arizona Highway Patrol Association.

Chavez was grateful that the legislature partially reversed earlier DPS pay cuts, which he said is a factor in recruiting new officers. But Chavez is still looking for support from lawmakers who control the agency’s budget for a fully staffed agency, and things like “getting our fleet back up to where it needs to be, but all around I think the department has been impacted so significantly with the economic downturn that we’ve just gone through that it’s going to take some bold moves by legislative leaders to really turn things around.”

DPS Spokesman Graves said it’s not just legislators who can make life easier for Highway Patrol.

“Well, it would help if people drive better," Graves said. "Then we wouldn’t be as busy as we are. Right now our officers, say, here in the Phoenix metro area literally are going from call to call to call to call.”

Back in Officer Roman’s patrol car, he shows me the digital board that tracks his fellow officers.

“The green is how many people are open for calls, and as you can see, there’s three for the entire district," Roman said. 

So for right now, even with cadets moving through the academy...

“You can see how you can get spread very thin very easy.” 

Nick Blumberg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2014.