Emergency siren 

Barring voter intervention, we're likely to see a less responsive public safety team

Someone steal your stereo? Too bad. Gangs taking over your neighborhood? Better move. House on fire? Cross your fingers and hope enough fire engines are available.

Barring a radical intervention by City Council, or voter approval of the 2C property tax increase in November, the Colorado Springs fire and police departments will take some heavy hits in 2010. City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft, in her proposed budget, recommends that Council direct the police department to cut 53 uniformed positions and 12 civilian jobs, crippling its ability to investigate most property crime and gang activity, capture fugitives, and intervene with certain types of habitual criminals.

The fire department would lose 35 uniformed positions, impacting its ability to cover troubled areas, prevent fires, and fight large-scale blazes — like the Castle West Apartment fire that claimed two lives in 2007.

"I'll finish up my 39th year in the fire service next year, and I've never seen anything like this, where you lay off hardworking, dedicated firefighters in a community that proposes to care about that service," Fire Chief Steve Cox says.

In past budget cuts, Council has tried to spare public safety. Last year, a divided Council agreed to cut police and fire by 1 percent, while other departments suffered massive hits. Though public safety has fierce defenders on Council — Scott Hente is an example — many say with a $25.4 million shortfall, public safety can't be spared, particularly because it makes up more than half of the general fund budget. The city manager is already planning to obliterate parks and recreation, as well as transit. So plans are to trim the fire budget by 2.2 percent and the police by 3.1 percent.

"The truth is the projected cuts for this year don't leave much wiggle room at all," Councilor Jan Martin says, "because the other departments will have been cut so deeply that there's really nowhere else for us to cut."

Police off the streets

"We're taking a look at certain calls to see whether we should just flat out get out of the business of responding to them," Police Chief Richard Myers says. "And we're going to need the public's input and help on that."

Welcome to 2010. Proposed police budget cuts mean that cops may not help you when you call about a noise complaint or the overgrown grass in your neighbor's yard. If your car or your garage is robbed, cops will take down the information, but they probably won't investigate the crime unless they notice a pattern of similar break-ins.

There won't be any more police helicopters, so you won't hear them flying over your neighborhood. But their absence also means police are less likely to nab fleeing suspects.

"If you're eroding your pool of labor, there are some things you can be the best at and keep on doing," Myers says. "But you can't keep doing everything ... we're trying to find cost-effective methods to deal with the low-frequency but high-risk incidents."

In other words, police may be too busy solving murders and rapes to respond to that ugly abandoned car on your street.

Cuts in 2010 will hit the meat and potatoes of the police department, taking 26 positions from the patrol bureau, which responds to 911 calls. But many cuts will come from more specialized areas. The department won't have the same ability to do street-level policing in problem neighborhoods, rooting out drugs and prostitutes. Big drug and gang busts may become more rare. A program pairing officers with the most violent repeat juvenile offenders, resulting in fewer crimes, will disappear. The nationally-recognized, oft-copied Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team, once a unit that worked with the worst repeat domestic violence offenders, will now have one officer.

Myers is preparing to dismiss 23 police officers, including the 21 who just graduated from the police academy. Six civilians will also be laid off. Throw in current and expected 2010 vacancies, and 65 positions will be gone because the department won't be hiring at all in 2010, not even to replace people who leave. And because of long training times, even if the department resumes hiring in January 2011 — which seems unlikely given budget conditions — recruits would not be on the job for another nine months. During that time, the department could easily rack up another 20 vacancies.

Meanwhile, the police department is already understaffed based on the most common national indicator, which suggests two cops per thousand people. Currently, the department, which has 678 sworn positions, would need another 141 officers to meet that benchmark.

If you want to tick off Chief Myers, suggest to him that instead of cutting police positions this year, the city ought to just implement an across-the-board pay cut. Then brace yourself.

"You have to pay them market value. Period. It's simple economics," Myers says. "And so, for those people who want to take this fiscal crisis out on the backs of our cops, don't be surprised when they pack up their suitcases and move up the road to a community that's willing to pay them market value."

Myers notes that our police are already underpaid. Out of nine comparable Front Range cities, he says, only Pueblo paid its police officers and firefighters less than the Springs. A Denver cop or firefighter with four years' experience makes $2,415 to $5,389 more a year than his Springs counterpart.

Firefighters spread thin

A few years ago, Chief Cox says, there was a structure fire on the Old North End. The fire department did what it always does.

"You get a dispatch, you get four people on an engine and they're able to do — and this is key — an aggressive interior fire attack," he says. "That means they're taking a hose and they're going inside the burning building and they're going to do search and rescue. And then they locate the victim. And because we have paramedics on our engines, they're able to knock the fire down, extract the victim, start resuscitation. And then this person walks out of the hospital in two days a talking, walking, living, tax-paying human being. And that's what you get when you have a professional, staffed fire department."

Here's what's coming: In 2010, the department would cut 11 vacant positions, a pair of two-person medical squads, a heavy rescue unit and significant overtime hours. That means fewer firefighters, and fewer people who help firefighters be more efficient. Which means the fire department can't do a lot of work to, say, prevent another Castle West. And it means longer response times, especially in busy areas like the southeast side, and in large-scale fires where a lot of engines are needed.

Keep in mind that seconds often make the difference between life and death if you're caught in a fire.

Cox says this doesn't mean the engines won't come to your house when it's burning down. They just might not get there fast enough. Or they may not have enough staff to actually go into the building. Instead, they may have to fight the fire from outside, increasing the risk of property damage and civilian deaths.

Deputy Chief Dan Raider sums it up.

"There are parts of the country that have fewer fighters arrive at a house fire," he says. "But typically what you see is they're outside, lobbing water, and eventually the building will either burn down 'til it's a smoldering heap of trash, or they put the fire out."


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