Mesa police are hiring 17 new officers and detectives with the proceeds of a sales tax increase approved by voters this fall, taking the first step toward a redeployment from the creation of a new northeast Mesa patrol district.
Police Chief Ramon Batista said he has a highly diverse class of 30 recruits enrolled in a new police academy – one of two this year with plans to eventually add a third.
Eventually, during a three-year period, the sales tax is anticipated to pay for an additional 51 officers, 31 non-sworn professional staff members and eight detectives, according to a police budget presentation before the Mesa City Council earlier this month.
“The diversity ratio has been going up and up,’’ Batista said in an interview after the meeting. “In the past 18 months, I have been moving forward in making more women in positions of leadership’’ through promotions.
Police trumpeted their request for a $9 million budget increase – to $196 million in fiscal year 2019-2020 from $187.2 million in fiscal year 2018-2019 – by citing a decline in both violent and property crime during 2018, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Mesa’s violent crime rate fell to 24.3 per 1,000 residents, the lowest the city has recorded, making it the second safest large city in the nation, slighter higher than Virginia Beach, Virginia, and lower than Long Beach and Sacramento, California, and Arlington, Texas.
That fact was quickly seized upon by Mayor John Giles, after east Mesa council member Kevin Thompson criticized a one-minute longer response time in his district.
“We are at all time low in regards to crime rate. That’s a big deal,’’ Giles said. He noted the council promised 65 additional police and 45 fire and medical positions when advertising a one quarter of 1 percent sales tax increase, from 1.75 percent to 2 percent, that was approved by voters in November.
“We are on track to do that. Our only limitation is our capacity to train officers,’’ Giles said. “We are delivering on the promise we made to voters.’’
The increased staffing will be critical in about three years, when police realize a longtime goal by dividing the far-reaching Superstition patrol district in half, creating a fifth district in northeast Mesa.
The move becomes a necessity as Mesa matures as a city, with more residents and businesses located in northeast and southeast Mesa.
Batista said he hopes to add 59 more officers in the next four years, creating a blend of 62 percent sworn officers and 38 percent civilian professional staff members.
The plan would grow the department from 761 sworn officers to 820, and from 462 non-sworn to 495.
City budget reports show that public safety, which includes police, fire and the Municipal Court, accounts for 58.8 percent of the budget, with police alone making up 39.3 percent, in fiscal year 2018-19. The Mesa Fire and Medical Department takes up 17.7 percent.
Sgt. Nate Gafvert, president of the Mesa Police Association, said Batista should have been arguing for hiring an additional 25 officers per year, minus attrition. He said tired officers are working double shifts in patrol, creating safety issues.
“That is a high liability issue that we should be concerned with,’’ Gafvert said. “They are prone to making poor decisions when they are tired and cranky.’’
“It’s a step in the right direction,’’ he said about the hiring plan, “but we are not happy. What he’s asking for will sustain us where we are right now.’’
Thompson, a frequent advocate of his growing southeast Mesa council district, raised similar concerns and complained about a chart in the presentation that documented the longer response time in Superstition.
Thompson questioned whether Batista’s plan was aggressive enough to cope with population growth and attrition from retirements.
“It seems like we’re the little Dutch kid and the dam. We’re just plugging problems,’’ Thompson said. “Why aren’t we solving problems instead of just plugging holes.’’
Batista agreed the department is shorthanded and that the staffing has fluctuated, with a loss of 20 sworn officers in the 2017-18 fiscal year after a gain of 13 the previous year.
“I’ll take as many as you can afford for us to have,’’ Batista said. “You could give us 50 officers today and we would find something for all of them to do.’’
Gafvert said that at this point, Batista should know exactly how many officers he needs and should have been a better advocate for the department.
Batista and Assistant Chief Ken Cost, who heads the patrol division, said the longer response time in east Mesa is largely a function of geography – with police traveling longer distances to respond to calls in the far-flung district.
The Superstition District stretches from Mesa’s northeast border near the Tonto National Forest to south of Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport. It covers 70 square miles and Gilbert could fit inside its borders, Cost said.
Traditionally, the Fiesta and central patrol districts, near Fiesta Mall and downtown Mesa, are the city’s busiest. While that pattern is still accurate, the mix is in flux as east Mesa grows, especially near the airport.
In 2018, Central recorded 45,878 calls for service, compared to 45,443 for Fiesta, 42,161 for Red Mountain and 40,161 for Superstition.
Although Fiesta and Red Mountain have been relatively stable since 2015, the largest increases in calls have been posted by central and particularly Superstition, which recorded 4,000 less in 2015.
The chart that clearly concerned Thompson demonstrated the disparity in response times between west and east Mesa, a longstanding problem in both the Mesa police and fire departments.
Central’s response time was shortest at 3:17 minutes, compared to Fiesta at 3:30, Red Mountain at 3:51 and Superstition at 4:53. Thompson questioned why more officers are not getting shifted from Fiesta to Superstition. Cost said that officers are being re-assigned each year, usually only a few at a time, based on crime trends and demographic changes.
City Manager Chris Brady said Superstition currently has 76 officers, compared with 75 in Central, 80 in Red Mountain and 95 in Fiesta.
Cost said the main issue with the Superstition response times is geography, with the other districts far smaller in size. Fiesta, for instance, covers 15.6 square miles and Central 12.3 square miles.
He said it’s important to put the response times in prospective.
“Even Superstition is very low compared to other police departments,’’ Cost said.
Batista said the Northeast district exists only as a concept and a location for the new station, part of a major capital improvement and bond plan, has not been chosen.
He said that when the Northeast district is created, the Fiesta district will likely lose a beat or two and the Central district likely would shrink slightly.