KOLD INVESTIGATES: Lack of officers costing TPD millions, leading to slow response times

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - "It just tears you up, eats at you that someone would come in and try to hurt a church. The reason we're here is to help the community." Pastor Brent Armstrong describes the damage done in the latest break in to his Tucson Baptist Church on Columbus south of Broadway. It happened this spring.

The pastor's church has been broken into about two dozen times over the last decade. He feels the reality of this latest crime was bad, $12,000 in damage. But says the aftermath was worse - the police response.

He said it took six or seven hours before an officer showed up.

"Something in the system is not working correctly and no matter what the police department might be saying with enough officers, not enough officers is just not satisfactory to take hours upon hours for the police to respond to a call," Armstrong said.

Not enough officers

The department and city admit it's a problem.

They said because of budget issues and retirements, the department has its fewest number of officers in 30 years -- that number is about 800.

But what the department and city haven't talked about publicly is that $6 million of taxpayer money is spent on officer overtime every year. Using freedom of information laws, Tucson News Now obtained the overtime for the department from 2015 to 2018.

We asked Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega about the overtime pay. He is the point person for the city's budget, which includes the police department's budget.

We asked: "Wouldn't that money be better spent hiring more officers?"

"Absolutely," Ortega said. "The bottom line is I'd love to see some of that overtime money be used for new officers."

Ortega says it's not as simple as taking money away from overtime - and using it to hire more officers. He says the goal is to have 150 additional officers in three years. But the department loses about six officers a month to retirement or other jobs. That's about 210 in the next three years.

So - to get to 150 additional officers - they'll actually need to hire 360 new people.

"The constraint is not turning overtime dollars into new officers. The constraint is physically training them. When you look at putting on three or four academies on an annual basis," Ortega said.

Departments all over the country complain about being in a similar predicament in terms of losing officers.

But as part of this investigation, we obtained numbers from the Mesa police department. MOD is similar to TPD in number of officers and city population.

On average, Mesa pays out $2 million less in overtime per year.

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus did not agree to an on-camera interview about the disparity, but did give a statement.

" As more officers are retained and as our recruiting/hiring efforts are strengthened, we hope to reduce the overtime spent to assure adequate staffing." -- Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus.

Ortega said the public will know within a year if their plan to hire officers is working, and if the amount paid in overtime starts to go down.

Pastor Armstrong believes time is of the essence.

"When it happens to you, you wonder wait where are the police," he said. "So I just challenge our leadership and our city to fix the problem."

Copyright 2018 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.