The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) recently decided to allocate $800,000 from its Technology Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) to help research the problem of staffing shortages in law enforcement and fire agencies across the state.
TRIF is funded by a 0.6% sales tax established in 2000 that provides funding for K–12 schools, community colleges and state universities. ABOR is allocating a total of roughly $1 million from the fund toward a series of community grants to address pressing issues facing the state. After they consulted communities about what types of research would be helpful, one answer was especially clear.
“I think we have all heard, whether it’s in the media or anecdotally, the difficulties that communities are having with maintaining, recruiting, and training particularly police and firefighters,” ABOR Chair Lyndel Manson told the Arizona Daily Sun. “When we put it out there that we were interested in helping communities solve their problems, this was one of the top things that came out in the request for proposals.”
Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona will work together on the TRIF-funded project by conducting social-science-based research that aims to determine how public safety agencies can better recruit and retain sworn personnel, and to develop a long-term “workforce pipeline” to fill vacancies going forward.
According to ABOR officials, the research will involve both quantitative and qualitative data collection and two experimental studies on municipal-level recruitment. The university partners will also collaborate with the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System working group to identify the primary factors behind police and fire attrition rates.
Short staffing has impacted law enforcement and fire agencies across Arizona.
“We have 18 officers in various stages of field training. 12 recruits starting right now pre-academy for our next police academy,” Flagstaff Police Chief Dan Musselman said. “On patrol, when I take out those 31 people that are in training out of our 70 officers that work the road and the streets, we’re 47% down on officer staffing. That’s a huge number.”
To mitigate the impact of short staffing, the FPD has implemented various strategies to maximize the time and impact of existing officers, including using online reporting platforms, doing callback reports and proactive patrols.
“We really do try to keep our squads whole. [To do that] we push people more toward online reporting platforms. So if you’re in a wreck and we’re tied up on other wrecks — maybe we’re tied up on an injury accident and yours is a noninjury — there’s a way you can do that accident report online,” Musselman explained. “We try to do a lot of callback reports as well, so that I’m not sending an officer out to drive to your house. We’re trying to be greener and say, ‘Hey, we’ll have an officer call you.’ If there’s follow-up, we can have a road officer do that. We really are trying to mitigate some of those effects.”
In addition, the department has been forced to divert officers from traffic squads to ordinary patrols.
“We had to pull folks off of our traffic squad and put them on regular squads to help answer calls for service. We haven’t been able to do as much of the proactive traffic enforcement that we would like in school zones or intersections where we see a lot of wrecks,” Musselman said.
According to ABOR, the Phoenix and Tucson police departments have experienced even more severe staffing shortages.
“I have one little statistic here that I think is very telling. The City of Phoenix Police Department has a shortage of 500 officers. For priority two calls, things like a burglary in process, the average response time ranges from 20 to 40 minutes,” Manson said. “By which time I’m assuming the burglary in process is no longer in process.”
Chino Valley Police Department Chief Chuck Wynn welcomed the new grant project.
His department is currently down by 10%, which has led to longer shifts and moving officers from drug task forces to patrol duty.
“Morale of existing officers declines as they are overworked … and it is harder to get them time off,” Wynn said. “Officers working long shifts are more likely to get into accidents and make poor decisions because they are tired. Call response times increase as there are less officers on the street.”
Musselman said there were many factors behind the staffing shortages, citing bidding wars and a higher cost of living in Flagstaff as drawbacks for potential recruits. In addition, the chief said that a increasing population and a decreasing body of law enforcement officers is adding to the stress and burnout faced on the job.
“We try to keep an eye on that and make sure that people aren’t getting burned out in the profession,” he said. “If they are, they need to come in talk to their supervisor, talk to the chief, and let us reassign them somewhere where they can catch their breath and get their feet back up under them for a while. Let us get you into a training that refills your cup and gets you back in a positive place.”
According to Andrea Whitsett, executive director for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the community grant project is key. “This Regents’ Community Grant will fund research to answer key questions about recruitment and retention challenges facing police and firefighters. These professions are essential for public safety, yet many agencies are experiencing problems maintaining adequate staff. This research aims to shed insight into this issue to ultimately inform leadership and address staffing challenges.”
The tri-university faculty aims to present the findings to the governor and Arizona legislature by the end of this year.