Police Chief Michael Kurtenbach

“We’re losing an average 11 more than we are hiring every month and that’s a significant number and it’s not a number – despite our best efforts – that we’re seeing turn around,” Executive Assistant Police Chief Michael Kurtenbach told a City Council subcommittee.

The Phoenix Police Department is losing more officers than it can find to replace them as the total number of sworn personnel continues in a near freefall.

There already are 42 fewer patrol positions than the minimum level the department considers necessary and 100 more vacancies are expected before the end of the year, according to a memo from Assistant City Manager Jeff Barton to City Council.

At the same time, the number of recruits has been abysmal.

Fewer people are interested in becoming police officers and other law enforcement agencies lure experienced officers away from Phoenix PD, according to that memo and testimony by high-ranking department heads at a Sept. 8 council hearing.

“We’re losing an average 11 more than we are hiring every month and that’s a significant number and it’s not a number – despite our best efforts – that we’re seeing turn around,” Executive Assistant Police Chief Michael Kurtenbach told Council’s Public Safety and Justice Subcommittee.

The memo shows that while calls for service have increased by 4.9 percent and response times have increased by seven seconds in the last five years, the total number of sworn positions has decreased to a total of 2,781 – 172 fewer officers than the department had in March 2020.

“Despite aggressive hiring campaigns over the last two fiscal years,” the memo states, “like most other law enforcement agencies across the country, the department has experienced a continued decline in the number of filled sworn positions.”

“On average, the department is currently losing approximately 30 officers per month and expects to lose 100 additional officers by mid-December 2021.”

At the same time, the memo shows, monthly caseloads for officers assigned to investigate assaults, burglary, domestic violence and adult sex crimes are anywhere from twice to 10 times the number recommended for best practices. 

The average caseload per officer for burglary investigations is the highest – 169 cases instead of the recommended 15 cases – while the average monthly case-load for domestic violence investigations is 66 cases per officer instead of the recommended 15.

The continuing downward spiral in both existing filled positions and recruits was to be discussed by the Public Safety and Justice Subcommittee today, Oct. 13.

When that topic was discussed a month ago, Kurtenbach and Assistant Police Chief Sean Connolly offered little hope for any short-term improvement either in attrition or recruitment rates.

Kurtenbach expressed a problem common to both keeping experienced officers and finding recruits.

He said when he joined the force 31 years ago, “This was my career. What we’re seeing is this is a job and it’s a job for folks that want to strive for a work-life balance, which I respect, but what that means is more of a life balance than a work balance.”

He said many officers are deciding “I don’t want to do this job anymore” and just as many are leaving for agencies that offer more than higher pay – which Kurtenbach said “doesn’t work much anymore.”

“In the past, it was easy for Phoenix to hire because we were the biggest agency,” Kurtenbach said. “We were the agency that offered the most opportunity.”

But all that has changed as other law enforcement agencies offer perks like take-home vehicles and flexible schedules.

“I can’t offer a flexible schedule because when somebody picks up the phone and they call 911, I need to ensure that I have proper staffing there to address that issue,” Kurtenbach said.

“I need to ensure that we have detectives that can follow up on the crime that occurs,” he continued. “And if there is a need to effect an arrest, that I have folks that can go out and do that. So there are challenges that we are trying to address.”

The result, Connolly added, is that Phoenix Police are seeing a “significant” loss of officers through so-called lateral transfers to other agencies “at a greater number of people than our ability to bring in laterals.”

The department has engaged in an aggressive recruitment effort, utilizing various social media and other internet platforms and cultivating relationships with military bases as well as historically Black universities and colleges.

It also is offering a $7,500 hiring bonus to recruits as well as a $2,500 bonus to city employees who refer a successful recruit to the department.

But the efforts to recruit military veterans didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari, who said she’s seen studies about “the negative impacts of hiring from the military.”

“When you’re in the military, maybe the culture is look to fight,” Ansari said. “We’re in the police department. It’s more of a protection role.”

Noting the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation into various Phoenix Police activities, she said, “I would much rather see emphasis on recruitment from universities, community colleges, community groups as opposed to the military.”

Connolly conceded veterans present "a complex dynamic” and said the department has “filters” when it interviews any recruit aim at determining whether there are any red flags in a recruit’s character.

“I’ve seen both sides of it,” he said. “I’ve seen incredibly intelligent, emotionally intelligent veterans that you and I would look at and go, ‘that’s the Phoenix police officer that we want serving our communities. In that same vein, I’ve been on call, with veterans that hear a backfire and they’re diving under a car because they just did a tenure in Afghanistan.”

While grappling with ways to staunch the attrition rate and beef up recruiting successes, the department has developed several strategies for addressing crimes and other emergencies in the city, according to the memo.

“The department is focused on ensuring that resources are appropriately distributed,” it said. “An important factor in deciding patrol staffing levels is looking at where elevated levels of crime are occurring and analyzing response times.”

The memo said the department is utilizing “a workload evaluation model when looking at how best to disperse resources across the city” that involves weighting calls “on statistically significant data, instead of perceived need or emotions, which results in an unbiased result.”

That model gives the highest weight – 43 percent – to citizen calls and 21 percent to specific violence crimes. Property crimes and traffic collisions each carry a 9 percent weight, the memo states.

“PPD continually looks at ways to evolve and continue to meet the needs of the community, which is especially important in times of decreased staffing,” the memo states, adding the department is identifying calls that don’t need a uniform officer “but possibly a response by another agency or a non-sworn department representative.”

The department also is identifying tasks that can be handled by civilian employees or even retired officers who could be rehired for less taxing work.

“To immediately address the current staffing issues, the department is working to identify roughly 200 positions to reallocate to patrol and other investigations divisions,” the memo added. 

It also is assigning detectives to four-week rotations on patrol in four precincts. 

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