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Workload is getting worse for city cops

Police Chief Richard Myers frowns.

"The fact is, if they're doing something illegal, you have to stop it," Lynn Karnes, owner of Continental Cleaners, is saying. "Illegal is illegal."

It's Friday morning at City Hall, and about 30 people are attending a South Nevada Community Association meeting. But the conversation has veered from development and beautification to an old standby: law enforcement.

Last year, South Nevada got tough on crime. The association hired cops to walk the street for a few months, and city government pressured the crime-infested Cheyenne Motel into closing. The methods worked. Extra policing drew down crime almost immediately, while closing the Cheyenne forced some habitual criminals to move elsewhere.

But for Karnes, the city's efforts were too little, and late.

And this is where Myers pipes up. If you want to place blame, he tells Karnes, blame the fiscal crisis and the rock-bottom property taxes city residents pay.

"We have at least a half-dozen other South Nevadas across the city," Myers says, adding that focusing on South Nevada is "drawing away resources from other parts of the city."

The chief scans the crowd somberly.

"It's only going to get worse," he says.

More people, less money

In fact, it's already getting worse.

After years of slow growth, Myers' department is staring down a budget cut. The chief says police, already struggling to keep up, are cutting corners, skipping investigation of lesser crimes, and using volunteers to do real police work. The lack of resources puts extra pressure on cops who could (and sometimes do) find jobs elsewhere. Better-staffed Denver pays starting cops nearly $2,500 a year more.

The 2 percent budget cut 1 percent requested by City Council, and 1 percent required by the Public Safety Sales Tax will kill 11 vacant sworn positions and seven civilian positions (four of them now filled). The department won't be looking to hire any new cops in 2009.

Meanwhile, both police helicopters are in the shop, and the department can't afford to fix them.

This is just the latest. For quite a while, sex crimes even those with a named suspect have had to wait for investigation. The Springs once won awards for its Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT). Now, the program is gutted. So are programs aimed at mentoring troubled juveniles.

Myers says he's tried to avoid losses like these. Since civilian employees are generally cheaper, he uses them for everything from human resources to crime-scene investigation to the crime lab to dispatch. Some child-abuse case investigators are civilians. And civilian volunteers may enforce handicapped parking rules or look into cold homicide cases.

It's in part the large team of volunteers that has kept the department afloat, but now Myers will have to rethink that strategy: He doesn't have enough money to pay for proper staffing to train all of the volunteers.

The chief has also cut down on the work that cops do by begging people to report many crimes over the phone or Internet a situation far from ideal on the investigations end.

While the squeeze on the police department continues, the city grows. Just at Fort Carson, about 5,500 new troops are set to arrive this year.

"The community has grown at an incredible rate," Myers says, "and the police department has not."

Actually, since 1990, the department has grown from 404 officers to 688, and from 188 civilian employees to 293. That outpaces population growth, but doesn't keep up with calls for service, which have skyrocketed from 141,789 in 1990 to 308,285 in 2008.

Myers says countless factors determine the right size of a police force. But he says he could use at least 100 more cops more than the approximately 680 he has.

Now.

Heavy load

Pete Tomitsch says he's proud that his department has done so much with so little. But cops like him can only be so efficient.

Right now, he's going without a raise, and he's usually sacrificing his lunch break. But what he really misses is the satisfaction that comes from doing the things cops do: busting criminals, making neighborhoods safe, giving victims a sense of closure. These days he's so busy, running from call to call, that he can't put in the work it takes to nab a local drug dealer or get to know the residents on his beat.

With just a little more time, he says, he could prevent crime.

"Sooner or later, we're going to become very much a reactive police force," says Tomitsch, who's been on the local force about 12 years. "I don't see how we as a department can cut anything else and remain as efficient and as service-oriented as we are now."

The lack of police officers already means more cases don't get solved. Criminals are on the street. And cops, rather than waiting long periods for backup to arrive, are sometimes taking risks they shouldn't.

"Oftentimes, officer safety is also being compromised because of the lack of manpower," Tomitsch says.

He says it's time for the city's taxpayers to fund public safety with a property tax.

"Decisions are going to have to be made," he says. "What kind of police force do they want?"

Reason to leave

Not every cop is sticking around to see if the community will step up to the plate.

Brian Strickland was the type who didn't shy away from the tough stuff. Assaults? Murders? All in a day's work. He talks easily about a 2000 incident when he shot and killed a suspect in a domestic violence call.

But Strickland's eyes soften when he talks about the force's inability to police the old-fashioned way. It bothers him that crime investigation is slipping even as new crimes emerge that require more legwork, like identity theft. Truth is, cops can't even quickly respond to many calls, let alone investigate everything.

"We have people waiting hours for a cold burglary," he says. "I think a burglary is a big deal."

That frustration, combined with the stress of years of working nights for the busy Sand Creek station, got Strickland thinking about a career change.

"I think it just wears on your body," he says. "I want to live to be an old man."

Strickland left the department in January, after nearly 12 years. Now he owns his own business selling insurance. It's a better paycheck for his wife and three young kids, and less stress.

In his last few years with the force, Strickland says, he noticed a lot of officers retiring early or opting for a career change. Even though it's no longer his job to care, Strickland says he hopes the city finds a better way to fund police so cops can keep doing their jobs right.

"It's not the department's fault," he says. "We just don't have the resources."

stanley@csindy.com

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