Queen Creek’s Fire Department recently celebrated its first birthday, but another decade will likely pass before the town assembles its own police force. Last week, town officials began negotiating a contract with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. That pact would keep deputies patrolling Queen Creek through 2013.
The town is the sheriff’s highest paying customer — Queen Creek pays $3.9 million a year to the sheriff’s office — and is among the largest populations that deputies are responsible for protecting.
Queen Creek doesn’t intend to remain tied to the sheriff’s office indefinitely; but town officials say MCSO is the best option for the foreseeable future.
“Especially with the impact of the economy, now is not really the time to start another big service like this,” said Joe LaFortune, Queen Creek’s public safety manager. “And our relationship is good with the county.”
Importantly, the town makes use of the sheriff’s investigations division and, when the need arises, its SWAT team. The expense of training and maintaining such specialized police forces is far more than the community of 23,000 people can afford, LaFortune said.
“We get so much more out of the contract service than the town could ever provide right now,” he said. “If we need a K-9 (unit), they bring the K-9 out. If we need a helicopter, for whatever reason, the helicopter comes out.”
The town population must double to roughly 50,000 residents in order to generate enough tax revenue to support its own police department, according to an outside consultant’s analysis that Queen Creek commissioned in 2003.
Besides the cash flow, the town has maintained a warm relationship with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff has two volunteer posse serving Queen Creek that do community outreach, said Marnie Schubert, a town spokeswoman.
Relations between Arpaio and some of the other communities his office serves have at times turned hostile.
Arpaio nearly withdrew sheriff’s deputies from Guadalupe last year after the town’s mayor criticized a massive operation targeting illegal immigrants in April. Similarly, the sheriff threatened to pull out of Carefree when a town councilman criticized a deputy’s performance during a public meeting in 2005.
The sheriff’s office has reciprocated Queen Creek’s loyalty.
The sheriff’s office has added two full-time patrol positions in as many years, an increase the town has funded.
“Whatever they need, we’re going to give them to protect the people out there,” Arpaio said.
Further, the sheriff’s office has made Queen Creek its own patrol division and assigned two high-ranking deputies to oversee the expanded unit. The town previously was part of the sheriff’s sprawling Division 1 — a huge expanse that includes nearly the entire south East Valley.
Queen Creek’s then-rapid population growth coincided with a rise in property crimes. The consultant also found significant problems in the sheriff’s response to the most serious emergency calls, labeled “priority one.”
“The average priority one response time of 19 minutes and 41 seconds in December seems high,” the consultant’s report states, “as well as the 15 minutes and 33 seconds in October.”
The national average for response to those emergencies is five minutes.
The sheriff’s office had only one deputy assigned full-time to Queen Creek at the time. Now, there are five, along with a captain and lieutenant, stationed there.
In 2005, deputies arrived to Queen Creek emergencies on average within eight minutes, data the sheriff’s office provided to the town shows. By 2007, the sheriff’s office had cut a minute from that average.
LaFortune said he is hoping the addition of a fifth deputy last year will further shorten responses to service calls.
Queen Creek suffers little violent crime, according to sheriff’s incident reports, beyond a handful of domestic violence cases each month. And while overall crime reports jumped 21 percent in 2007, the figures show a majority of that increase came from incidents that deputies witnessed, like drunken driving.
“Some of it is increasing population,” LaFortune said. “Some of it is we’ve been discovered. The thieves, a lot of them, are coming from other parts of the Valley.”