9OYS Investigates: TPD faces hurdles with hiring, staffing
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – Understaffed and overworked – it's no secret that Tucson Police are fighting crime with fewer resources, but they're also fighting another battle: training and retaining officers.
According to TPD Chief Roberto Villaseñor, there are now 160 vacancies in the department, meaning a constant shifting of manpower and a force that's no doubt hurting. With safety on the line and the fact that Tucson can't afford to lose more officers, the department is doing all it can to keep the ones it has.
"The reality is that sometimes people need to go where the best situation is for them – could be familial reasons, could be because their job, so forth," Villaseñor told 9 On Your Side's Claire Doan. "We try and foster the identity of community to keep people here and encourage the tie-in with the community."
But the city hasn't been able to tie-in a raise for officers in the last several years, while other agencies lure them with higher wages and better benefits. The problem isn't lost on Councilmember Steve Kozachik.
"You're losing not just a human being, a trained person, but we're losing an investment that we put in and then having to lap the track, go back and do it all again," Kozachik said.
A conservative estimate for training one officer: $100,000. The department is down approximately 160 officers, equating to $16 million down the drain. Training new recruits to fill the empty spots means TPD must invest another $16 million – so all that amounts to a steep price tag at $32 million.
Beyond the financial cost lies the challenge of finding recruits.
"A lot of people don't want to be shot at. They don't want to be exposed to bodily fluids in the field. They don't want to be exposed to a lot of things we're exposed to, so our pool for police recruits is getting smaller and smaller and smaller," said Larry Lopez, President of the Tucson Police Officers Association.
Arizona law enforcement agencies essentially dip into the same pool; as the number of recruits shrink, so do the number of qualified candidates. In a recent open call, TPD received 600 applications, but the number of viable candidates dropped down to 100 after the initial screening, background check and written exam. Then after a polygraph test in addition medical and background checks, about 25 viable candidates enter the academy.
Best case scenario? Out of 600, 15 recruits become officers and hit the streets, about a year and a half after they apply, given the extensive training process. For TPD, it's a long process that makes it tougher to climb out of its staffing shortage.
Lopez said the situation is worse than it sounds: "You're not just talking about 160 positions by the end of the year. We're looking at 300 vacancies that we're down, so to recover 300 positions, you're talking five, seven, maybe ten years for a full recovery for the police department."
It's true that budget problems are a sign of the times, but it also means that as other cities and departments recover, more will look to the Tucson Police Department, as a potential hiring pool.
"Police work is about integrity, honesty and the ability to do the job correctly and honestly when no one's looking. That's what police work is all about. It is a big competition out there right now, specifically with the economy the way it is," Lopez said.
Villaseñor said, "It's something that concerns us because we don't want to lose anyone. We make quite an investment in people when we train them. We want to keep them here."