Booming Gilbert has grown faster than it can afford to hire police officers, leaving the town with the thinnest police coverage of any community in the East Valley.
And it’s going to get even thinner.
Though the town has steadily needed to add about 12 officers a year to keep pace with its population in recent years, town officials doubt they have money to expand by a single officer in the next year. This comes after two years of hiring only half the new officers required to keep up with growth.
Gilbert’s police coverage has fallen to less than one officer per 1,000 residents — a ratio below those of other Valley communities. All other East Valley municipalities have at least 1.45 officers per 1,000 residents, and some have more than twice what Gilbert has.
Police Chief John Brewer said crime prevention efforts are shrinking, and he suspects response times are growing — trends he wants to stop.
"We need some relief," he said.
Gilbert employs 134 police officers in a community of 135,000, a ratio of 0.99 officers per 1,000 residents. The ratio was 1.2 officers two years ago, but the town has only funded half as many officers as would be needed to keep up with the 1,000 people who move to Gilbert every month.
The ratio is likely to get worse. If the town doesn’t add new officers and growth continues at the same pace as it has for more than a decade, the town will have 0.91 officers per 1,000 people in a year.
Brewer said he is trying to reassign officers to deal with the most critical public safety issues. He has proposed eliminating the anti-drug D.A.R.E. program and taking officers out of junior high schools. The six officers in those programs would take up patrol duties or other functions that deal with more pressing matters.
But Brewer knows the growing workload has hampered prevention efforts that could ultimately cut crime or make streets safer. As an example, he noted the department expanded traffic enforcement in 2002, a year after a record nine motorists lost their lives in crashes. He credits the preventive effort with cutting traffic deaths to one in 2002. Brewer said he fears he’ll have to cut such efforts in the coming years.
"It worries me that we are becoming more reactive," Brewer said.
Regardless of police staffing, Gilbert is one of the nation’s safest communities. The town ranks 319 th on an FBI list of places for violent crime rates. Gilbert logged 117.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2000, compared with a national rate of 506.1.
Gilbert’s chief said the affluent town has survived with lower police staffing levels primarily because it lacks the businesses or socioeconomic segment that drive crime in other communities.
"We thank heaven for that," Brewer said. "If we had the demographics of other communities, we’d be in trouble."
Brewer notes that if Gilbert had the same ratio of police to residents as neighboring Chandler, he would have to immediately hire 83 officers.
Brewer said he expects to ask the town for more officers as the Town Council considers the 2003-04 budget in the coming months. But as the town is searching for ways to cut at least $2 million to avert a deficit, officials said it’s unlikely the town can afford to hire more officers.
Brewer said he’ll come up with a specific number in several weeks, when he expects to finish a staffing study of the police department. He is looking at trends for response times, the number and types of calls and the breakout of tasks officers perform.
Mayor Steve Berman said he and the Town Council are sensitive to public safety issues, but he added the town’s relative safety doesn’t require the type of coverage other communities require.
"I’m not sure there is a burning need for a larger head count in Gilbert because our crime rate is one of the lowest in the state, if not the country," Berman said.
The mayor said he’s hesitant to authorize more officers when the police department has unfilled positions. The Gilbert Police Department has funds for 142 officers, but eight spots are vacant because of departures and the year of preparation involved with getting a recruit on the street. The department is working to fill the positions, Brewer said.
Berman said his town and other communities have had trouble recruiting qualified officers in recent years, and he’d rather have open positions than marginal officers.
"If you hire the wrong meter reader, how much damage can they do?" Berman said. "You hire the wrong policeman, you have big problems."
As tight as staffing is, Brewer said he’s been through worse. A more severe budget crisis struck Mesa years ago, when he was on that city’s police force, which pleaded with officers to keep costs down by driving less and parking their cars at high-profile intersections to stay visible.
Brewer laughed and shook his head as he recalled the idea of police sitting in parked cars, a drastic measure that he said Gilbert will avoid.
"The officers want to be moving around," Brewer said. "They don’t want to sit on a corner like a paper tiger."