Arizona Department of Public Safety officers once patrolled the Valley’s freeways based on assigned geographic beats.
Those days are long gone.
The department is simply spread too thin, resulting in huge coverage gaps and longer response times, said DPS Cmdr. Terry Conner.
"If you’re working the East Valley, working the (Loop) 101 and Raintree (Drive), you can get a call to go to I-10 and Ray Road," Conner said. "That’s quite a drive in traffic and if you have to get there in a hurry, that’s dangerous for you, that’s dangerous for the public, and the person from the call is having to wait longer."
DPS is struggling so much that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he is asking for a 12 percent pay increase for officers this legislative session in the hopes of attracting more of them. He also is seeking funding for 12 to 19 new officers and for overtime for special enforcement details.
DPS officials are seeking a budget of nearly $153 million this year, almost $7.7 million more than last year, said DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela.
Any pay increase would go a long way toward helping the department attract and retain officers, something officials have a hard time doing now, Valenzuela said. The starting annual salary for a DPS officer is about $36,000.
At least 20 other law enforcement agencies in the state pay their rookie officers more than DPS does, Valenzuela said.
Criminal justice and corrections traditionally don’t fare well when it comes to budget time, and that is unlikely to change, Conner said.
"There’s a lot of horses trying to get to the trough to get a drink of that budget water, and by the time we get there, it’s minimal," Conner said.
While the East Valley’s freeway system continues to grow exponentially — its five freeways are roughly 115 miles in length — the same cannot be said of new officers.
Two years ago, lawmakers approved 100 new officers for the Valley.
"We have had success in filling some of those positions, but it’s like putting your finger in a dike," Conner said. "We have fallen so far behind in available resources here that it’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of effort to get the people on board that we need to stay ahead of the curve."
Pearce, who along with House Majority Whip Randy Graf, R-Green Valley, wrote the bill asking for the pay increase, says the number of fatalities on Loop 101 perfectly illustrates the need for additional officers and funding.
"You’d think the 101 was the Autobahn," Pearce said.
Loop 101 isn’t the only East Valley freeway that is troublesome, Conner said.
"If you drive the Superstition Freeway on Saturday morning or the (Loop) 202 on a Saturday morning or Sunday morning, it is not uncommon to see cars doing 80, 85 mph or greater on that free stretch of road," Conner said. "People just smoke down that highway."
Jennifer Roberts, who has been a DPS officer for five years, said fewer officers on the road also means less training, late dinners and writing reports at home. She stays with DPS because she loves the work, but finds it disheartening at times when she thinks about the benefits her colleagues receive in Phoenix and other municipalities.
They are compensated for working graveyard shifts, speaking Spanish, longevity, obtaining degrees and being motorcycle officers.
On one recent Wednesday swing shift, 20 officers were working in the East Valley. Sixteen other officer positions were left unfilled.
Sadly, Wednesday is the one day there are overlapping shifts, Roberts said. Any other day of the week, there are even fewer officers on duty.
"We try not to make anyone wait for any kind of service, but we can only do so much," Roberts said.
Her squad car computer is about to be phased out with a much-anticipated computeraided dispatch system, Roberts said. Until then, she’ll have to put up with long waits for warrant checks and stolen car reports. Or she’ll have to rely on overworked dispatchers.
The computers not only create a dangerous situation, but also a morale issue, Roberts said.
"It’s sad when I’m helping another agency and the officer looks into the car and says, ‘What’s that?’ " Roberts said. "They’ve got these huge, touch-screen laptop computers that can pull up maps and different locations."