Police officers say low morale, lack of pay raises and shrinking resources make it harder to justify staying on the Mesa Police Department as the city faces a financial crisis.
About two dozen officers have applied to the Arizona Department of Public Safety for lateral transfers, while others have already given up their hard-earned seniority to work for Phoenix or Gilbert.
"We are at an all-time low," said Bryan Soller, a patrol sergeant who is president of the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police. "The public has no idea how bad it really is."
"We are starting to see officers who say maybe they can do this job in other communities that will compensate me better and treat me better." Soller said.
Officers are already feeling the pinch as Mesa stares down a $37.7 million budget shortfall.
Raises and cost- of-living increases were eliminated for this year and 2006-07 for all city employees. Police Chief Dennis Donna and City Manager Mike Hutchinson are among other city employees calling it quits.
"Overall, I think morale is fine," said assistant police chief Gregory T. Fowler, a self-described optimist who will take over as interim chief on Jan. 1. "There are occasionally comments about the benefits package. But overall it’s excellent. We have great people doing great police work every day."
But many patrol officers interviewed by the Tribune said discontent is becoming widespread. The officers asked that their names not be used for fear of backlash within the department.
"The upper echelon doesn’t believe it’s going to happen," said one Mesa detective. "But they’re not on the streets. Everybody is afraid to say anything. It’s hard on everybody."
"One of the frustrations we face is that crime doesn’t stop just because you don’t have enough money to pay the guys to work," the detective said. "Nobody joined this job to get rich. We lay our lives on the line, we choose to do it. But when you look on the other side of the fence, the grass might be greener."
At least five officers have already transferred to other departments, including Phoenix, Gilbert and Peoria. Three others were hired by DPS this month.
"People are applying for departments all over the Valley," Soller said. "We’re going to see an exodus, and it’s going to be a steady exodus."
Donna said recently that about 24 Mesa officers were in the hiring process with DPS, but DPS would not confirm the number, citing personnel privacy issues.
Phoenix, currently testing and hiring more police than any agency in the state, has also caught the interest of Mesa officers.
"We have several who are in the lateral process, but only time will tell whether they are hired," said Phoenix recruitment Sgt. Tony Lopez, who would not elaborate on exact numbers. "They want to be able to grow with the fast-growing community. They seem fearful that if the (property tax) doesn’t pass, it will impact the quality of their employment as a police officer. So much so, that others already have decided to go elsewhere. Others are considering."
Still, Fowler said he has not seen any evidence of a mass exodus.
The Mesa department, with about 820 officers, loses about 45 officers yearly to retirements, resignations, firings or lateral moves to other agencies.
So far this year, the number of officers leaving is in the normal range, he said.
"It’s been popular to talk about, but few people we have seen have said, ‘I’m actually going to do it,’ " Fowler said.
City Councilman Mike Whalen, who retired as an assistant police chief from the department, said this isn’t the first time Mesa has dealt with this issue.
"In the ’80s there was bad morale, officers threatening to leave," Whalen said. "I understand. Early in my (police) career I threatened to leave Mesa. I went to L.A. and was going to work there. I think things are going to get good, but it’s hard to keep telling the guys to just hang in there."
At the same time, nearly every agency in the state is in a steppedup recruiting mode as the number of applicants dwindles and a massive retirement wave looms next summer.
Mesa receives its fair share of police hopefuls, but they are not coming in droves anymore.
"While we don’t have the numbers we used to have, neither does anyone else," Fowler said.
Mesa is looking to fill 15 to 20 officer vacancies now, in addition to several cadets already enrolled in the police academy and another group of new hires being trained on the streets, Fowler said.
Fowler said that whenever the agency reaches about 25 vacancies, it hires that many to fill an academy class.
Officers say Mesa doesn’t have the luxury of being choosy.
"Bottom line is we have a hell of a time hiring new people," Soller said. "It’s across the Valley, but we don’t have anything to compete with other agencies. They have better incentive programs, pay more for college."
To stay competitive, DPS recently implemented a higher pay scale for transferred officers, and Phoenix credits 50 percent of a transferred officer’s seniority after his or her first year in patrol.
Many officers are quick to point out that Mesa now ranks near the bottom in pay and incentives compared with other Valley agencies.
It used to be one of the best, Soller said.
In addition, their monthly cost of health benefits jumped by a minimum of $51, many officers lost the privilege of driving department cars home and some department-issued cell phones were taken away.
The department now works with an annual budget of close to $127 million.
"Unfortunately, in the past few years (the city hasn’t) been able to do quite as well (with pay parity) as in the past," Fowler said. "I firmly believe it will come back. There’s no doubt in my mind."
Officers have been counting on Mesa voters to approve a property tax to solidify the city’s finances, but the City Council is still debating putting the measure on the May ballot.
"Without that, things are going to get very ugly in Mesa," said Soller, whose group, along with the Mesa Police Association and the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, has publicly endorsed the property tax.
The City Council for a time was leaning toward an increased sales tax and secondary property tax, but critics say this is not a longterm solution.
"There has to be some kind of steady funding source from somewhere. You can’t rely on growth and businesses," said Joe Shelley, president of the Mesa Police Association, which represents about 500 officers. "You can’t put a Band-Aid over a broken bone. Some people are wanting a quick fix for this year, and not the next 10- to 15-year goals we should be looking at."
Donna and Fowler have each said that cutting full-time positions would be a last resort, and there are no plans to do so.
It’s not just salaries.
Besides financial setbacks, officers say policies and practices within the department contribute to morale problems.
"People are leaving because they don’t feel the city stands behind them," Shelley said.
He said one example is what he sees as the department’s inconsistent disciplinary code, currently being reviewed by a committee.
"There are smaller infractions of rules that we feel have been dealt with very, very severely, and there are policies going into effect that are very limiting, liabilitydriven," Shelley said. "It makes it a little tougher to do things that way, especially in fluid moments when you have to make up your mind in a few seconds. It’s then that officers feel the department won’t stand behind them."
Police representatives have been trying to implement a formal agreement in which city administrators and police representatives would meet regularly to discuss issues — but without success so far.
Another sore spot that has contributed to low morale is the new computer system the department adopted over the summer, which officers say in the beginning was riddled with bugs.
It has transformed the agency into a paperless report-writing system — but officers say it also takes twice as long to file reports and has created a mountainous backlog of reports as the entire department adapts.
Fowler attributes the frustrations to growing pains and said officers are finally getting used to the system and seeing its value.
Still, as the department’s budget tightens, patrol officers say they are being asked to do more with less. Soller said many beats around the city are operating with the minimum number of officers on a daily basis.
A computer program calculates the minimum number of officers needed to cover a beat by looking at how many officers are available and location and time of police calls in the city.
When the number of officers falls below the requirements, additional officers are paid overtime to round out the squads.
Lt. Lynn Young, a patrol coordinator, said off-duty officers have been pulled in at various times throughout the year to complete several hours of mandatory training, including a 40-hour block for each officer to learn the new computer system.
Also, the department is not fully staffed, and manpower is reduced further by sick leaves and vacations.
"I still enjoy going to work," said a patrol officer. But "patrol has been kicked the hardest."
Nevertheless, the department has still been able to find the manpower needed to address pressing crime trends, such as the spike in traffic and pedestrian fatalities this year.
Three motor officers and a sergeant have been dedicated to enforcing high-volume traffic areas, and the department is looking for grant money to fund additional enforcement, Fowler said.
"I don’t think it’s any worse today than it’s ever been," Fowler said about staffing issues.
Despite the hardships patrol officers say they are facing, many have vowed to stay to see what a new chief and city manager can bring to the table.
One of the first orders of business for incoming City Manager Chris Brady, who takes over in January, will be to select a new police chief who will have a challenging task ahead.
Donna, chief the past three years, steps down Dec. 31.
"I certainly want to reach out to police officers to get a sense of what they are looking for in a chief . . . what experiences they expect the next chief to have," Brady said.
The nationwide search is expected to wrap up by late spring when the City Council will ultimately approve Brady’s selection.
"We’re really looking for someone to be a leader," Soller said, "to step out there and fight to change the way things are done."