AZ Republic Article- “Police Union: 25 officers helps, but Mesa still understaffed”

While Mesa police union officials applauded word the department would receive $5.8 million in federal funds for 25 new officers, they say the money will only slow the “bleeding” of empty positions.When the economy tanked last year, Mesa was forced to slash its police budget 8.25 percent. That meant a 90-percent reduction in overtime and the freezing of open positions.

With new funding on the way, the department stands to reopen some positions.

“I was glad,” Sgt. Fabian Cota, president of the Mesa Police Association, said of the grant funding announced Tuesday. “We were a little disappointed to only get 25 though.”

Former Chief George Gascón had pressed city leaders to apply for 100 officers, but that was later trimmed to 25.

“In reality it’s just going to make up for the officers we are losing. It’s just going to slow the bleeding a bit,” Cota said.

The department had 857 sworn personnel in July 2008, but that number has dropped to 808, according to police figures. Without the federal funding, by 2010, the department would be left with about 780 officers to police nearly 500,000 people.

On Tuesday, White House officials announced that Arizona police departments would receive $12.6 million in economic-stimulus funds. Mesa received the most funding than any other city in the state.

The money will be administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS) and will be used to hire 56 new officers statewide.

The money will finance the officers’ salary and benefits for three years. The city must equip officers with cars, weapons and other gear and cover their salaries once the grant runs out.

Mayor Scott Smith said the city is prepared for the added expense.

“Whatever we take on, we’re committed to funding it,” he said.

However, that commitment could prove costly if the economy doesn’t rebound quickly enough.

It costs up to $120,000 to train one new recruit, said Sgt. Brian Soller, president of the Mesa and Arizona chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police. In addition to their $72,000 salary which includes benefits, rookie officers receive about $14,000 in equipment including a vehicle, badge, gun, Taser and other items.

“We are excited about this,” Soller said of the new officers. “It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it will help us stem the loss of officers we have experienced.”

Because of the nature of the COPS grant, the officers will be oriented toward crime prevention and community policing.

“Those positions will put officers on the street and get them out into the community,” Soller said.

While more bodies on the street is a good start, Cota said overall there are too few officers for the city’s needs. There are currently 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents, whereas the city should have about 2.4 officers, national standards suggest.

Cota said the department needs more patrol, DUI and school resource officers, and more detectives assigned to its Computer Forensics Unit, which he says is “way understaffed.”

“We should have 10 to 15 detectives in there,” Cota said, noting that the unit once had seven detectives and now has two.

Computer forensics detectives search through thousands of electronic files on computers and data from cell phones, text messages and photographs. Much of that information helps in prosecuting sexual predators.

“That’s one things haven’t been able to do is go after online child predators in Mesa. That’s a serious problem,” Cota said.

While manpower will likely continue to be an ongoing problem into the future, Soller and Cota say they will continue to press city, state and federal officials for additional funding.

“We are going to continue to work and be in constant contact with the Obama Administration . . . to see if there is more we can do to get more manpower and technology our way,” Cota said.

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