Deputy Abel Porras had just started to consider where he might eat dinner Thursday night when the urgent voice of a Pinal County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher barged onto the radio frequency: A 20-year-old man had been found in his garage hanging from a rope.
Porras, who up to that point showed all the good-natured ease of a small-town deputy, became focused and intense. He popped on his lights and siren, and sped to the nearby housing subdivision where the man’s body was discovered. Within minutes, he was at the scene.
The death, which deputies are calling a suicide, was a one of the final calls during a day that included a slew of traffic stops, reported thefts and break-ins within the 70-square-mile area Porras patrols.
The region Porras patrols is part of a Pinal County Sheriff’s Office plan to concentrate manpower and speed up response times by dividing the booming county into smaller sections. The area of coverage once sprawled across 2,500 square miles.
“It’ll alleviate a lot of that running back and forth,” Porras said. “You’re running red lights trying to get there and then another call comes up. It makes for an interesting night.”
Sheriff Christopher Vasquez said the new region was created specifically to cut down on deputies’ travel time between calls.
“A lot of people need to understand the distance of the drive between point A and point B,” he said, adding that response times had been reduced by 60 percent since the new region was designated earlier this summer. “A lot of that’s due to more staff and a reallocation of manpower.”
Right now, the average response time is 14 minutes, largely because there are so few deputies in the field at any given time, Vasquez said. He said limited funding prevented the department from growing as much as he’d like, but added that deputies made a tremendous effort.
“Given the volume of calls, I think were doing an excellent job of keeping up with growth,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said Porras was a good example of a deputy who filled multiple roles in order to maintain an adequate level of service. In addition to patrol duties, Porras also acts as a commercial vehicles inspector and works traffic enforcement.
Just before Porras was dispatched to secure the scene of the possible suicide, he had responded to several calls in subdivisions that had lately seen a rash of crime. Porras said it was common for thieves to break into cars and include garage-door openers in their haul. Thieves can return and open garage doors with the remote, he said, giving them access to the house.
“It goes in spurts — we’ll go one or two weeks without anything and then they’ll start again,” he said. “Whoever’s doing it knows there’s not a lot of us out here.”
Sheriff ’s officials said growth in the area led them to recruit 13 deputies, now in training, and 10 more deputies who are scheduled to enter the academy in September. The County Board of Supervisors earmarked funds to hire almost a dozen more deputies, because the county will continue to see a population boom, studies say.
Arizona Department of Economic Security estimates say Pinal County’s population will soon exceed 250,000 residents. It grows by as many as 7,000 people each year.
And developers have already submitted plans to County Planning and Development Department to build nearly 18,000 new homes in the area.
Supervisor Sandie Smith said the community forming around Hunt Highway requires law enforcement to keep up with the pace of growth.
“When there’s more deputies there, they’re responding quicker,” she said. “And they’re not drawing from the rest of the area.”
In addition to the calls Porras received from the dispatch operator during his 10-hour shift Thursday, residents often approached him to report incidents that concerned them.
For instance, Porras headed to a construction site to check out a resident’s report that someone was picking the lock to the gated entrance.
Although Porras didn’t locate anyone, he found that the lock couldn’t be picked and said that it was likely a security guard who had opened the gate. Porras searched the site for about 30 minutes, locked the gate and returned to his beat.
“Not really much to rob out here,” he said. “Now to head out to the other call.”
Porras handles quite a few calls — about 1,800 calls for service come out of the region each month. It was once populated only by a few ranchers and farmers, but housing subdivisions have popped up lately in the green pastures, attracting thousands of new residents to the area.
Porras, a native Spanis-hspeaker who went to school to learn English, said the diversity of the new arrivals created a variety in the calls.
“You get anywhere from family fights to reckless drivers trying to get home,” he said. “We have anywhere from lawyers, down all the way to the migrant farmers who still live here.”
Porras’ shift calmed down late Thursday night after a van showed up to collect the body of the man who was found hanged. Porras said while driving away that he had seen a lot of disturbing things in his five years with the sheriff’s office.
Although Porras said he’s come to accept tragedy as part of his job, he said he felt sorry for the young man’s family and friends.
“It’s not really that you get immune to it,” he said. “But it’s got to be a job to you.”