Growth challenges police, fire departments - East Valley Tribune: Gilbert

Growth challenges police, fire departments

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Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2004 9:13 am | Updated: 4:50 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

December 9, 2004

Part 5 of 6 On a recent Tuesday afternoon, officer Steve Scarlett is stuck behind a slowmoving tractor, dust billowing out behind it. On one side of the street, tufts of white cotton are waving in the wind under a perfect blue sky.

On the other, sweaty workers toil on homes in various phases of construction.

A block down the road, a dairy farm sits idle, waiting to be dismantled, replaced by yet another subdivision, or maybe a megashopping center. A faint odor still lingers in the air.

As a kid, Scarlett would come to Gilbert from Chandler eager to earn some pocket change. He’d break his back hoeing weeds at the Bogle and Lamoreux farms for $1.80 per hour. For fun, he’d pick oranges and grapes at his grandma’s house.

Now 38 and a 15-year veteran of the Gilbert Police Department, Scarlett spends his days watching out for residents whose addresses fall under the 85296 ZIP code.

"The orange groves are gone and the grape vineyards where I used to pick grapes are gone," Scarlett says. "It’s good that there’s growth, but it’s sad that it’s taken away the rural feel. It’s given us a sea of growth instead of a sea of cotton fields."

While Gilbert officers still have to round up the occasional cow or horse, gone are the days when train conductors could stop on the tracks to grab a cup of coffee at the downtown convenience store on Gilbert Road.

Fender benders, construction site thefts and residential burglaries keep officers busy nowadays, but new shopping malls and freeways mean new crimes and faster getaways. Credit card fraud, forgery and shoplifting calls may soon become routine for Gilbert’s officers.

By 2008, when the population is expected to reach 210,000, the town will have even more big-city issues. Plans are in the works for the creation of a sex crime unit and a violent crime unit — crimes now handled by the same handful of detectives. An extra assistant chief and a new commander will have joined the force and a new substation may have been built.

That’s then and this is now, however.

Many of the town’s new shopping centers aren’t even built yet, but already road construction, an officer shortage, more motorists and geography are proving to be daily headaches.

Like most cities, the police department assigns its patrol officers to geographic beats so officers can get to emergencies as quickly as possible. There are six beats in Gilbert now, but officials anticipate reconfiguring the town and adding three by 2009.

"When I started, there were only 48,000 people in Gilbert and there was nothing south of Ray Road except the rodeo grounds," 12-year Gilbert veteran Joe Gilligan says.

Geographically speaking, the 85296 ZIP code is so large, officers from two beats and part of a third respond to calls there.

Someone living at Williams Field and Higley roads, which are within the ZIP code, typically has to wait 11 1 /2 minutes for an officer to respond to an emergency at their home. Someone living outside the ZIP code, however, say at Warner and Gilbert roads, has to wait an average of six minutes for an officer.

It typically takes a Mesa officer between 3 1 /2 and 4 1 /2 minutes to get to an emergency call.

CONSTRUCTION WOES

The sun breaks the horizon one chilly October morning when Gilligan is pulled away from Beat 4 in the ZIP code area and dispatched to a two-car crash at Guadalupe Road and Neely Street. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper and Gilligan navigates his way through side streets to avoid the neverending sea of orange construction cones and barricades.

"The growth means there are many calls per officer now, of course, and when we’re getting to a hot call, we really have to plan how to get there," Gilligan says. "We’ve got to know where the construction is and it’s pretty much all over. There are some roads we have to avoid like the plague."

Five minutes later, Gilligan arrives to find two toddlers being comforted by their scared but unhurt mother, who has rearended a pickup truck.

Within minutes, there have been three other noninjury accidents within a quarter of a mile. Five of Gilbert’s 11 day-shift patrol officers are tied up directing traffic.

Should all hell break loose now, Gilligan says, detectives and supervisors may have to help out.

The next day, officer Dave McMahon is at headquarters at Gilbert and Warner roads when he’s dispatched to the Costco at Arizona Avenue and Baseline Road for a robbery alarm.

By the time he gets through a few construction zones, two traffic officers on motorcycles and a commander have arrived to help set up a perimeter. The call turns out to be a false alarm.

"We’ve never had that call where there’s two guys with a knife and it takes forever to get there, but it’s feasible," McMahon says.

NEW HIRES COMING

Within the next five years, the town hopes to hire an additional 90 officers

and build a substation.

They also will strive to reduce response times and increase their proactive patrol times by 10 percent per year.

Hiring additional officers isn’t simple, however.

They’ve yet to fill the 15 positions authorized by the Town Council this year — thanks to fierce competition among other East Valley agencies, not to mention the Phoenix Police Department.

In mid-November, the department had 30 police officer positions open. The town’s officer- topopulation ratio was 0.89 officers for every 1,000 residents when the council had set a 1.1 officer-toresident minimum standard. The national average is 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, according to Lt. Joe Ruet.

"Back when I tested, we’d get 1,000 applicants for four jobs," says 12-year veteran Sgt. Lance Baker. "Now we’re lucky if we have four testing for 40 jobs."

Baker attributes the lack of interest to the state’s strict standards on previous drug usage, private-sector pay, a perception of danger and a lack of selflessness.

Fewer people than ever identify with John F. Kennedy’s idea that people should "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," Baker says.

Last year, 623 applied for a police job with the department. Only 15 were deemed qualified, offered jobs and successfully completed the academy. Three of those failed to complete the department’s field training, though.

Gilligan, a field training officer, has trained 64 rookies over the last 10 years. Fewer than 50 are still with the department, many having left to join other departments or left law enforcement completely.

Of the department’s 157 officers, only three have more than 20 years on the force and 108 have fewer than 10 years with the department.

The department’s day-shift officers are informally called the "dinosaur squad" because of their collective years of experience.

"In Gilbert, an older officer could have only six years on," Gilligan says. "Three or four years ago, everyone knew everyone, but now we’re getting to the point where I know who they are, but I don’t necessarily know their name."

FIRE DEPARTMENT GROWING, TOO

After spending 26 years with the Phoenix Fire Department, you’d think Collin DeWitt would have retired to a life of ease.

Instead, he became chief of a fire department in the fastestgrowing municipality of more than 100,000 residents in the United States.

Over the next three years, the Gilbert Fire Department will hire no fewer than 71 firefighters to staff four new fire stations, two of them targeting the 85296 ZIP code.

Next year, the Gilbert Fire Department will respond to as many as 1,000 more calls than this year — 75 percent of them medical in nature, DeWitt says.

The numbers are expected to only go up from there. And with the Santan Freeway stretch of Loop 202 coming through, he predicts firefighters will begin to see more high-speed motor vehicle crashes.

"I think we’ve got a very forward-looking plan to deal with all of the growth, though," he says. "It’s very well-planned and wellthought out. It’s the speed to which all of this growth that has occurred that’s been the challenging part."

Fire department budgets are based on impact fees so "growth pays for growth," as DeWitt puts it.

Each new fire station costs about $3.5 million once land, construction, personnel, equipment and furnishings are taken into consideration.

"From a fiscal aspect, all of our funds are going for growth," DeWitt says. "In some of the other communities in the Valley, like Tempe, for instance, their funds can go to expanding existing programs. They can expand their education programs in the schools, but our funds are going toward new stations."

WORKING THROUGH THE PROBLEMS

Until the police department builds its substation, Gilbert officers will continue to improvise.

Baker thinks of his officers as " ‘MacGyver’ cops" because of the way they make do. Since they aren’t provided cell phones because of budget constraints, they take plenty of reports from payphones, fire stations and strip malls. "At least it keeps them on the streets and out of the station," Baker says. Many of Gilbert’s officers see the town as the East Valley’s next Scottsdale. They hope town officials will be able to maintain their high zoning standards to help prevent parts of town from deteriorating. Baker says he is a great believer in the "broken window theory." "If the window in a house is broken and isn’t fixed, people will think no one in the community cares and crime will increase," Baker says.

The more neighborhoods are allowed to deteriorate, the lower the rents become and the greater likelihood drug dealers and methamphetamine labs will proliferate, Baker says.

The Gilbert Town Council, along with homeowners associations and the police department, have the chance to prevent that from happening, Baker says.

As for the town’s growth overall and the problems that brings with it, the officers will simply have to adapt, they say. "Gilbert’s a great place to live and you can’t keep people from moving to a good place," Gilligan says. "You can’t just cut the population off."

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