If you ask the mayor, the city’s stormwater infrastructure issues and its understaffed police force are inextricably linked.
Mayor John Suthers said the Colorado Springs Police Department, while highly educated and well-qualified, is facing sizable financial stresses. Those, he said, can be attributed largely to the funds diverted for stormwater mitigation — and litigation.
“I do have concern about the level of overall [police] staffing,” Suthers told the Business Journal, adding the department employs about 14 officers for every 10,000 residents. He’d like to see that number closer to 17.
“Aurora would be at about 17 or 18 [officers per 10,000 residents] and Denver is at about 21 or 22,” he said. “While they have higher rates of crime, I think we are pretty thin. I would hope that we would be able to increase the staffing of the police department over the next several years.”
The mayor said, however, that the extent to which that can be done “has a lot to do with our ability to resolve stormwater funding issues.”
Colorado Springs voters elected in 2009 to do away with a dedicated revenue stream for stormwater infrastructure and programming, something “virtually every large city in America” has, the mayor said.
He hopes voters will, in the April municipal election, allow the city to work around Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights regulations in order to keep excess revenue to pay for those projects and free up general fund dollars for public safety.
Mitigation inaction led the Environmental Protection Agency to sue the city late last year, seeking Clean Water Act compliance, the fines could reach millions of dollars. While that suit is still not settled, the city reached an agreement with Pueblo to spend $460 million during the next 20 years on stormwater projects and maintenance from the general fund and Colorado Springs Utilities.
“We need a long-term … revenue stream to free up general fund money currently going to stormwater,” Suthers said. “In turn, that will allow us to structure a several-year police staffing program.”
Already facing lagging response times, Suthers said if the money problems are not settled soon, the department’s ability to do its job will only get worse.
“We may be able to add, depending upon how the economy goes, 10 officers this year and 10 over the next couple years, but I really feel like we need to add 100 over the next five years,” he said. “Our ability to do that will really be contingent on our ability to solve the stormwater issue.”
Police officers with CSPD are seeing a bit more money in their paychecks beginning this month. The raises (some exceeding 6 percent) are one way the city has addressed retention and staffing issues.
But officers have been doing more with less (including pay) for some time, according to CSPD Public Information Officer Howard Black.
“We’re about as efficient as we can get with the staffing we have,” Black said. “We’re constantly hiring and trying to bring ourselves to full strength from the days of the recession.
“We didn’t lay off any sworn positions during the downturn, but we also didn’t hire, and we continue to fall behind the curve.”
Black said departments nationwide have had to cut positions and demote personnel because of budget crunches.
“We continue to be in that catch-up phase, but one thing has been crystal clear in direction from [Colorado Springs Chief of Police Pete Carey], and that is that our standards will not change,” Black said.
Officers cost the city about $100,000 each, including benefits and salary.
“And we’re constantly dealing with attrition through retirements and people moving on. It’s a different workforce today,” he said.
George Reed, dean of the College of Public Affairs at UCCS, is a former U.S. Army military policeman.
Reed oversees the college’s criminal justice programs, which filter graduates to regional law enforcement agencies.
While not all 500 students in the program seek to become police officers, Reed said there’s “no lack of enthusiasm for entry in criminal justice professions. That’s evidenced by our enrollment at the university.”
The criminal justice bachelor’s and master’s programs are some of the fastest-growing programs on campus, he said.
“It has exceeded enrollment expectations since its inception in 2007,” he said. “To see the kind of enthusiasm among young folks in our undergraduate program is very heartening.”
While it’s true there is no shortage of applicants, Black said the quality of the applicants is not always up to the department’s standards.
“Have there been times when the chief wanted to hire 50, but we only hired 47? Yes, that has happened,” he said, adding the current academy has about 48 cadets and the hope is to bring in 62 cadets for a second class later in the year.
“Getting that upcoming class to 62 will be a challenge,” he said. “It’s a constant, trying to bring ourselves back up to speed.”
And the national law enforcement climate adds additional challenges, Black said.
“The phenomenon continuing in our country of officers being killed — does that have an impact on recruitment? There are scholars researching it and I think, obviously, there’s some impact from that,” he said.
In recent months, the department has shifted resources to help alleviate officer-shortage issues. For instance, the gang unit and impact teams have reverted to standard patrol duties, Black said.
“We all have to be generalists. But some areas need that level of expertise,” he said. “Fortunately, moving our gang unit to patrol doesn’t take away from the function of working on gangs. It actually can increase the knowledge base for all officers on the street.”
And despite staffing issues, for the country’s 40th-largest city, Colorado Springs is relatively safe, Black said.
“Last year we had 22 homicides,” he said. “For a city this size, it’s a safe city. But it’s still a large city.”
And when limited resources impact performance, they can also impact morale, Black said.
“People get into this work because they want to do the best for people. That’s a reality,” he said. “We want to take the appropriate amount of time on calls, but there are high call times where we can’t do that. It can be frustrating to listen to the communications center saying they need to clear priority 1 calls and we don’t have the officers. That’s a lot of pressure.”
Black said the department collaborates whenever possible with surrounding agencies, to include Teller and El Paso county sheriff’s offices and the Fountain Police Department.
“They also have the same issues when it comes to staffing,” he said. “But we can come together and do incredible things. We continue our Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Unit as a metro unit. There are sheriff’s deputies from the county assigned to the VNI Unit in the city. Our crime lab is a metro crime lab. There are also ongoing conversations about consolidating our communications and evidence centers.”
The department also has a robust community-service officer program, Black said. Those officers aren’t allowed to carry a weapon or make arrests, but they can work full- or part-time and assist in many aspects of police work.
“That has a huge impact,” he said. “We don’t necessarily need a $100,000-a-year position — a full-blown officer — responding to a traffic incident.
“CSOs are an incredible way to help assist the sworn side of the house. That’s happening more across the country. … They really become a force multiplier.
“But there’s only so much money we can put into CSOs,” Black added.
“We still need real cops on the street.”