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How Phoenix is handling 'crisis' police staffing situation

At least two Phoenix City Council members describe the police department’s staffing levels as “a crisis.” Fewer officers are patrolling city streets while calls for service and response times have increased.  

In March 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a national and state emergency, the Phoenix Police Department had 2,926 sworn officers. As of Oct. 13, 2021, the number had dropped by 150 to 2,776 sworn officers. The city council has authorized funding for 3,125 sworn officers.

“Our trend right here shows that we will have more than 10,000 additional priority-one calls this calendar year over last calendar year,” said Executive Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach. “That is a significant increase with fewer officers responding to those calls from our citizens who are in immediate need.”

Kurtenbach told the city’s public safety subcommittee the median response time for priority one calls — when a crime is in progress — is 6 minutes, 49 seconds. That’s 22 seconds longer than last year.  

“We’re not reaching a crisis, we are at a crisis,” said Councilwoman Ann O’Brien.

She and Councilman Jim Waring are especially concerned about the numbers. 

“I’ll just sum it up in a very impolitic way: I think we treat our officers like crap.” — Phoenix Councilman Jim Waring

“I think media coverage of officers in general and, frankly, the way I think we as a council sometimes treat our employees is also a factor,” Waring said. “I’ll just sum it up in a very impolitic way: I think we treat our officers like crap.”

Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia pointed out the city has settled claims for excessive force and the Department of Justice is investigating several issues, including whether the department violates the rights of people experiencing homelessness or behavioral health disabilities.   

“So I do think there’s a responsibility on ourselves to look at what we can take off officers’ plates so they can take care of those numbers,” he said.

The number for the patrol division is too low, according to Chief Kurtenbach. He said they’re unable to meet the minimum staffing goal of 1,096 officers, so detectives are being pulled off investigations to help.  

“This isn’t all a bad thing, I think it’s important for our detectives who maybe haven’t been in a blue suit for a while to go out and see what our patrol officers are facing every day and also have there be an opportunity for knowledge transfer from our senior detectives to our junior officers,” he said. “But make no mistake, they’re being taken away from other duties.”

In 2020, Phoenix hired nearly 90 new officers. But more than 200 left. Some stopped being cops, some took jobs with other agencies and some retired. Kurtenbach said 28% of the force could walk away with a pension right now. 

“There are 791 officers currently ... who are retirement eligible.” — Executive Assistant Chief Michael Kurtenbach

“There are 791 officers currently on the department, myself being one of those, so officers of all ranks, who are retirement eligible,” he said.

“If you’re looking at these trend lines, it’s devastating,” Waring said. “I think if we don't take action soon we’re going to regret it.”

Kurtenbach said they’re working with Human Resources to create a civilian police investigator classification to support detectives whose caseloads are considered higher than recommended based on best practice. 

“I need detectives that are physically there but I could use a retired homicide detective or a retired skilled investigator back in the office to do a lot of behind the scenes work that would free up our detectives to do those things that require a heavier lift,” he said. “That’s what this would allow us to do.”

In November, the full City Council is expected to discuss a way to rehire retirees. That’s also when a team of Phoenix recruiters will travel to Ohio to try to poach officers there.

The department recently began advertising signing bonuses. A recruit will typically start at almost $53,000 annually, but with overtime and holiday pay, uniform allowance, standby and shift differential pay, the average for a first year officer is more than $68,000 according to the Human Resources Department. When pension, medical and other benefits are added, HR says total compensation for a rookie averages more than $136,000.  

City Manager Jeff Barton said Phoenix is reviewing compensation, “It’s about a year long process and it is anticipated that many of our classifications, not just the sworn ones, but all classifications across the city are expected to be lifted up throughout the process as a result of that class and comp study.”

In the meantime, the Police Department continues to evaluate every position looking for ways to replace sworn officers with civilians.  

“This past year in the budget you approved the civilianization of our central booking detail. That allows four sergeant positions and 18 officers to be reallocated elsewhere in the department,” Kurtenbach said. “We are looking at other positions where we can do just that.”

For a department that’s losing an average of 30 officers a month, every position counts.

A closer look at officer pay and compensation

The Human Resources Department says when a police recruit graduates from the academy and becomes an officer, they will typically start at step three of the pay step schedule for an officer. The current base pay is $52,707 and when overtime, holiday, standby and shift differential, uniform allowance and education pay is added, the average annualized starting pay for a first year officer is $68,563.

Within six months, HR says an officer typically advances to step four with a base pay of $55,786 and average wage of $72,753. Officers max out at step nine, with a base pay of $78,603 and average pay of $110,436.

Total compensation includes wages plus the value of their deferred compensation plan, pension and medical benefits. 

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.