Mesa needs to start planning now -- and finding ways to pay for -- new police officers, equipment and facilities if it hopes to keep up with rapid population growth and an influx of new businesses.
That’s the message Chief George Gascón is hoping that the public and city leaders will take to heart as he announces his first State of the Department findings and recommendations this week. Gascón was named chief a year ago after serving many years with the Los Angeles Police Department where he rose through the ranks to assistant chief.
In the 13-page report, released at 5 p.m. today, Gascón highlighted problem areas in the city such as a cramped dispatch center and overcrowded Dobson police station, an insufficient jail and a shortage of officers as well as qualified applicants.
The anticipated economic development around Williams Gateway Airport and the opening of the Riverview retail megacenter also have already begun to stretch police resources, Gascón said.
Gascón also noted that the Valley’s justice system is centered in Phoenix forcing Mesa officers to spend substantial time off the streets when they transport prisoners or appear at court hearings.
Mesa “is a major city that needs to think of its own criminal justice system,” Gascón said.
Gascón talks in the report about a number of changes he’s made in the past year, including bringing a new computerized crime tracking program called COMPSTAT that has allowed officers to detect problems areas within the city and craft solutions directed at that neighborhood.
He’s also reorganized the department, putting detectives in district substations, holding forums for various interest groups and forming new units like the major felon squad and a department to better respond to terrorism or large-scale emergencies.
Gascón thinks the Mesa force needs to grow by as many as 250 officers within five years in order to keep up with public safety needs and keep crime down. The department has about 850 officers now and Gascón acknowledges with the departments normal attrition rate -- about 60 officers a year -- he’d have to hire more than 100 officers a year to meet that goal.
City Manager Chris Brady and Sgt. Fabian Cota, president of the Mesa Police Association, agree that an officer shortage is a problem, but the trick will be to find funding to hire more.
Mesa city leaders are discussing a secondary property tax that could put millions of dollars into city coffers. However, that funding could only be used for brick and mortar projects, like building new police stations.
Brady said it’s not possible under the city’s current financial forecasts to add as many officers as Gascón wants.
“This is not a unique situation for the police department,” Brady said. “We have the same problem in the fire department.”
The chief said he knows money is tight, and plans to offset officer shortages by making better use of technology and by using more lower-paid civilian employees and volunteers for jobs that don’t require a sworn officer with a gun.
Currently the department has 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents, but it should as many as 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents to be in line with nationwide trends.
“We must identify areas where technology can do a better piece and civilians can do it for less than a sworn officer,” Gascón said.
Cota said he believes tax revenue from the proposed Waveyard, a massive waterpark and resort, and a proposed public safety bond election would help.
Use of technology and managing a slim police force will be key, Brady said.
“The Chief and I are talking about how we can get more creative in using uniformed officers in the right way,” Brady said. “We’re looking at all of those things - things we can do short of hiring new officers.”
The department is already beginning to use a program, developed by Motorola, called Digital Six Sigma, that aims to identify “time wasters” in crime fighting, risk management and financial aspects of the department.
A new program called COPLINK will link information from multiple agencies together and mine databases for information that police can use in solving crimes. For example, Gascón said if an officer is looking for a certain type of car, but only has three numbers off the license plate and the color of the vehicle, the officer could query COPLINK and come up with a number of “hits” from all over the Valley.
“If you have to do this by hand, it will take hundreds of hours,” Gascón said.
COPLINK is expected to cost Mesa about $300,000, Gascón said, noting that a Tucson study shows the program could save the department millions of dollars because it cuts manpower and other costs.
“It’s a very progressive way of policing,” Cota said.
Other initiatives Gascón wants to start include a new East Valley Fusion Center, where local police agencies can share information on serial criminals, gangs and other organized crime and community partnerships that reach out to groups and individuals for input on crime problems and policing issues.
Councilman Kyle Jones said he supports Gascon’s plans and believes the most important issue is the shortage of police officers.
“We are lagging behind the national average and we just plain need more police officers,” Jones said. “There are a lot of things we need to be doing ... but without the resources to even do the basics, it’s hard to do the crime prevention programs.”
Jones also said the city is doing a “balancing act” trying to place a priority on public safety without sacrificing other crucial programs.
“You have to walk a tightrope,” he said.
- Tribune writers Jason Massad and Gary Grado contributed to this story.