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Fewer Colorado Springs cops work the streets as crime rises 

Are we less safe?

click to enlarge CSPD officers say more patrol officers are needed to hasten response times to calls. - FER GREGORY/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Fer Gregory/Shutterstock.com
  • CSPD officers say more patrol officers are needed to hasten response times to calls.

Crimes of all kinds are on the rise in Colorado Springs, while the number of uniformed officers on the streets has fallen 10 percent in the past five years and response times have slowed.

Rape, aggravated assault, larceny and motor vehicle theft have shown double-digit percentage increases in the first half of 2016 when compared to the first half of 2015, as well as the five year average (2012-16).

That bad news and more is contained in a report titled "Data Updates 2016 Semi-Annual" that the Colorado Springs Police Department has refused to release to the public, saying the report is in "draft form" and isn't subject to disclosure under state open-records laws. Despite the denial, the Independent obtained the report outside normal city channels.

The trend of rising crime and declining arrests has happened on the watch of Police Chief Pete Carey, who was appointed to the job in early 2012 after climbing through the ranks starting in 1984 and serving several months in an interim role.

Carey said through a spokesman his "packed" schedule didn't allow for an interview about the report.

Officers, who insisted on anonymity for fear of being fired, for months have expressed concern to the Indy about rising crime, shrinking patrol ranks and growing response times to critical calls, leading one officer to ask, "What kind of service is the community getting?"

That question might be especially pertinent in light of data showing CSPD's budget has soared by 21 percent since 2012, compared to the 12 percent rise in the city's general fund budget during the same period.

Meanwhile, officers report turnover rates are growing, and an internal survey of officers and civilian staff shows pay, workload and morale are top issues among the rank-and-file.

All that comes as news to City Councilor Jill Gaebler, who hadn't heard of the report but wants to see it. "I think it's obviously very concerning," she says. "I don't know what the full story is."

But as Gaebler notes, the Council has authority over spending, while the mayor oversees city operations, including the Police Department.

Mayor John Suthers says he's abundantly aware of the need for more patrol officers. "I agree that the police department is spread thin," he says via email, "and we have to continue to look for ways to put more officers on the street."

The report is being withheld from the public, says police spokesman Lt. Howard Black, because it's "a working document for staff in utilizing resources and not for public consumption, as these numbers change monthly based on investigation outcomes."

Data in the report show that while crime is growing significantly in almost every category, homicides aren't. Murders are up by 11 percent this year compared to the first half of 2015, but that represented an increase of one — from nine to 10. When compared to the five-year average dating to 2012, murders declined by two, or 17 percent.

All other crimes against persons have exploded in just one year (see chart). For example, not only is rape up by 48.9 percent over last year, rising from 178 to 265, but it's up by 32.5 percent over the five-year average, 265 compared to 200.

Aggravated assault — intending or causing serious bodily injury, using a deadly weapon or injuring a peace officer in the line of duty — jumped 29.5 percent over the five-year average, from 566 to 733. Simple assault — knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury or negligently using a deadly weapon — rose by a similar percentage.

Property crimes have grown by lesser amounts, but all categories showed increases when compared to the first half of 2015.

Officers say the surge stems from not having enough boots on the ground.

Nationwide, the FBI reports the rate of sworn officers was 2.3 per 1,000 population in 2014, the most recent data available. Colorado Springs has 685 sworn officers. If the Springs matched the national average reported by the FBI, it would have 1,035 officers. But a ratio compared to population isn't an acceptable method to determine police staffing, says Leonard Matarese, a researcher with the Center for Public Safety Management, which conducts studies for the International City/County Management Association of Washington, D.C.

What should be analyzed, he says, are calls for service and workload, which involves the amount of time spent on a call, as well as other demands placed on officers by the community. "To understand staffing needs, you need good data and to analyze it properly," Matarese says in an interview. "It's not based on population. It's based on the workload that's measured properly."

In a paper Matarese co-authored in recent years titled "An analysis of police department staffing: How many officers do you really need?" he notes the "rule of 60." That rule states that 60 percent of a department's sworn officers should be assigned to patrol. It also states that no more than 60 percent of patrol time should be "saturated" by workload demands, leaving time to perform other interface with the community.

"An SA [saturation index] greater than 60 percent indicates that the patrol manpower is largely reactive, and overburdened with [calls for service] and workload demands," Matarese wrote.

At CSPD, 38 percent of its uniformed officers are assigned to patrol, which is lower than five years ago.

According to CSPD records, there were 313 officers assigned to patrol in 2012 from the city's four substations — Sand Creek in the southeast, Gold Hill in the southwest, Falcon in the northwest and Stetson Hills in the northeast.

click to enlarge Data comes from a report the city won't release. - DATA FROM CSPD; DESIGN BY DUSTIN GLATZ
  • Data from CSPD; design by Dustin Glatz
  • Data comes from a report the city won't release.

Today, there are 307 patrol positions, Black says, but 22 are vacant, meaning there are 285 in the patrol division. But that figure is misleading, according to officers, who say there are only 274 assigned to patrol, and that doesn't take into account slots left partially staffed or unstaffed due to light duty and injuries. The actual number is more like 260, they say.

That means fewer officers to respond to a growing number of calls for service, which are 4.5 percent higher this year — 224,230 by the middle of this year compared to the five-year average of 214,663. Calls have risen 9 percent from 2012, the mid-year report shows, growing from 205,236.

During that time, the city added 13 sworn officers, according to city records, but those positions didn't automatically go to patrol, and officers themselves say it's not enough. Especially, they say, because turnover is rising. The CSPD didn't provide the turnover data by presstime.

Matarese says figuring out the right number of patrol officers is a complex undertaking that should include consideration of workload levels, as well as time spent handling a call for service, among other factors. But not all departments have the capacity to conduct such an assessment, he says.

Molly Miles, a CSPD crime analyst, says the city is capable of producing sophisticated analytical reports that are provided to the chief and his staff for deployment decisions. But she and Black note the city switched records systems several years ago, and analysts like Miles have been working hard to get the system to provide reliable data. The nearly $4.7 million records management overhaul should pay off, Black says, adding, "This system was a huge enhancement in managing our case load."

Says Miles, "The old system would produce a report, but we didn't know what that system was counting. There's a lot of ways to slice and dice crime data. We're attempting to create a new report to allow people to make comparisons across multiple years, so what we produced in 2011 is counting the same things [in subsequent years]."

"Once we are able to work through this," Black adds, "we'll have better data operationally and to share back with the public."

But officers don't need a computer to tell them they're swamped. Each of the city's police substations serves from 87,000 to 157,000 people, and areas that range from 43 square miles to 64 square miles.

Deployment data provided by the CSPD shows not all substations are staffed equally. Sand Creek, serving the southeast which reportedly has the city's highest crime rates, has about 32 to 35 officers split into three shifts per 24-hour period. Gold Hill, serving the southwest, has about 22 to 26 officers on any given day. Stetson Hills, in the northeast, ranges from 20 to 25, while Falcon, serving the northwest, has from 14 to 17 officers in a 24-hour cycle.

On a recent Saturday night, however, Falcon substation had only three officers on duty from 7 to 10 p.m., reports show. Officers dispute that, saying only one was on duty to cover the entire sector during that time. But even if there were three, that means each officer was responsible for about 32,000 people. Moreover, another officer says, when a call came in about a homicide about a year ago, no units were available to respond, so a commander was the first officer at the scene.

In Stetson Hills, there have been times when only two officers were available during the midnight shift, one officer said, adding, "It's dangerous. It's stupid. It's sad."

Officers say there are times when no cops are available to respond to the most critical calls. Yet, they say, every patrol officer is required to issue one traffic ticket per shift. Apparently, that doesn't always happen, though, because the mid-year report shows traffic tickets dropped by 12.4 percent this year compared to the first half of 2015.

Officers report one reason fewer cops are on patrol is Carey's strategy of pulling personnel from the streets to serve in specialized units, such as school resource officers, homeless outreach, the DUI unit, crime prevention, gang unit and others.

Matarese, who's reviewed dozens of departments, says that's not unusual. "We've seen a lot of departments that get bogged down with specialized units, and they drain staffing from patrol, which is the backbone of the police department," he says, addressing the issue generally, not speaking about Colorado Springs specifically.

Officers say specialized units are luxuries. "When you're as short as we are, you have to take care of the basics," one officer says.

The 2016 mid-year report shows the average response time to Priority 1 calls as 13 minutes, 8 seconds. That's the slowest average response time of any year since at least 2007, based on city data and the mid-year 2016 report.

Officers often don't arrive to a lower-level call for service for nearly an hour and a half, or even longer. Several cops say it's embarrassing and demoralizing to respond hours after the call was received, because they spend 10 minutes apologizing for their delay. "You don't know what it's like to go up to someone and say, 'We can't get there faster,'" one officer says.

A resident in the northeast sector says that one morning in recent weeks a man started kicking down her backyard fence, so she called police. No officer arrived, so she called again some time later, around noon. "They came at 11:30 at night," says the resident, Lena Blan. After the man broke down the fence, Blan asked why he did it and he told her he was having a rough day. The officer went to the apartment complex where the man lives, she says, but Blan hasn't heard anything since.

As crime has climbed and response times have lagged, the Police Department's budget has grown 23 percent to $109.2 million this year from $88.5 million in 2012. During that same period, the city's general fund grew by 12 percent.

Gaebler and Suthers note the Council and mayor have made public safety a priority.

"The fact that the city prioritizes public safety is reflected by the growth of the police and fire budget as a percentage of the entire budget," Suthers says. "I believe it is now around 55 percent of the entire budget."

Suthers says he plans to use money now spent on overtime to hire more full-time officers (see "Time is money," Aug. 10), but notes that police pensions are eating up more and more of the city's budget.

Pension costs for public safety, he notes, have doubled in the past seven years, adding the city has received a bill for $2.2 million more due next year for police and fire pensions to assure benefits are available to retirees.

"That could otherwise be used for more officers or greater compensation," the mayor says.

Suthers credited Carey and his top brass with being "very strong advocates" for police officers.

"They plead the case constantly," Suthers says, "but the city has to deal with the demands of a balanced budget..." and he adds polling shows voters aren't interested in raising taxes for anything other than better roads.

"Bottom line," he says, "we've got a great police department and it will continue to be a very high funding priority for the city."

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