TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It wasn't that long ago Tucson Police Department had more than 1,100 officers protecting this community. Today, that number is 928 and dwindling. Why?
Because veteran cops are leaving TPD at an alarming rate. At least 130 have resigned and moved onto other agencies since 2010, while a total of 330 have left the department for various reasons since 2008.
Couple that with an additional 70 officers set to retire by the end of next year – and what you have is a full-blown staffing issue that could impact police protection in our community.
"In your opinion, is public safety compromised in any way because of what we're going through right now?" Tucson News Now asks City Council member Steve Kozachik.
"Sure it is, sure it is,” says Kozachik, who represents Tucson's Ward 6. "And if the chief of police was honest with you, he'd stand up and say yes it is too."
"I disagree with that," says Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor. "Because it's not going to hit the numbers where we're not going to have good people here to handle the issues and handle the scenes.”
Villasenor's seen the resignation letters on his desk, as many as a dozen in just one week earlier this year.
Still, with a new class of recruits just graduating and another academy currently underway, Villasenor says vacancies are being filled.
"I think we've lost some great officers, but I also think that we haven't compromised public safety with the officers we lose because we're still recruiting," Villasenor says.
But to senior officers like Roland Gutierrez -- who's also the president of the Tucson Police Officers Association -- filling positions with new recruits isn't always a good thing.
"My safety is always compromised because not only do we have less officers on the streets, but we have inexperienced officers," Gutierrez says. "This is definitely a safety concern for all of us.”
Then again, TPD isn't alone when it comes to inexperienced personnel. Departments everywhere, even right here in Tucson, target veteran officers from other agencies. But sometimes that recruitment hits a little too close to home.
It's one thing to lose officers to attrition, retirement or a possible career change. But it's something entirely different to lose officers to rival agencies, who are literally recruiting some of TPD's finest right outside their front door.
That's what happened last week when Union Pacific Police parked a trailer just feet from TPD's West-Side Substation.
"It was basically the agency recruiting with a sign on their trailer that said, ‘Hiring laterals now,'"says Roland Gutierrez, TPOA president. "It's not only bad etiquette, but it's also opening the doors, making officers who are already thinking about leaving – it's making them think even harder."
TPD officials were pretty upset when they saw this and a phone call to Union Pacific promptly led to the trailer being hauled away. But TPD's issue of officer retention still exists.
At Union Pacific, entry-level officers make about $10,000 more than they would at TPD, where officers start at $46,000 per year.
Similar increases are available at Marana, Oro Valley and numerous other agencies across the region and state.
"You might be able to walk in the door at a higher pay rate, but you're gonna be sitting at that rate for the next 10, 12 years," Councilman Kozachik says of the other agencies. "Is that really worth it?"
What TPD has to offer, city officials say, is upward mobility. Remember all those officers retiring next year?
Those positions will have to be filled as well: everything from mid-level managers to command staff, even Tucson's next chief of police.
"I understand taking care of their family is their number one priority," says Chief Villasenor, who's among the 70 officers retiring from TPD next year.
"I don't fault anyone who uses that as motivation, but I want them to look at the big picture of seeing what they'll be giving up if they leave, because things will get better here," he says.
Interestingly enough, the city set aside $11 million last year for recruitment and retention purposes. But because TPD couldn't find enough recruits to fill their academies, that money went back into the city's general fund.
Cops will ask why couldn't some of that money be used for merit increases or at least cost of living raises?
That's a very good question.
One that could very well be raised again the next time mayor/council consider officer salaries.