EV Tribune: Union newsletter claims Mesa police understaffed by 400 officers

MPA Crime ReportPosted: Friday, April 15, 2011 3:39 pm | Updated: 10:54 am, Thu May 5, 2011.

By Garin Groff, Tribune

A Mesa police union has started printing a newsletter for the public that lists crimes while also claiming the city’s police force doesn’t “have enough boots on the ground.”

The Mesa Police Association Crime Report claims the force is understaffed by at least 400 officers. Sgt. Fabian Cota, MPA’s president, wrote citizens get angry when it takes hours to respond to calls and that a shrunken patrol division means some beats don’t get covered by an officer during some shifts.

Cota told the Tribune some members had concerns with revealing gaps in coverage but he said citizens need to see inside the agency.

“It’s very important that people know that,” Cota said. “That’s probably the first time anybody’s ever said that. That’s the first time anybody’s ever told the public.”

The MPA spent $6,000 to $8,000 to get this message out with about 50,000 newsletters distributed a week ago as an advertising supplement in the Tribune. Cota intends to publish monthly, and it’s also available at www.mpacrimereport.com.

Some City Council members question the claims, including understaffing. Cota writes Mesa’s force of 777 should be 1,200 according to industry standards. Vice Mayor Scott Somers said that was one of many claims that could hurt the publication’s usefulness. Somers noted the city’s crime rate has plummeted to the lowest since 1961. That doesn’t signal a crisis related to years of public safety budget cuts, he said.

“I think it’s fair for them to say that we would like to have more boots on the ground. But to say we don’t have enough boots … Based on what?” Somers said.

He questioned other statements, including that at least half of MPA’s members are in bankruptcy or being foreclosed on. Somers, a Phoenix firefighter, said he knows firsthand how the recession has strained public safety budgets and employee salaries but he doubts such dire statistics.

“My fear is that if it turns out not to be a lot of truth to this document, nobody’s going to read it. I think there’s a value in having the police organization help educate the public in what measures they can take to secure their own safety and help the public solve crimes,” Somers said. “It’s a wonderful platform but when you start to dive into that political message, that’s troublesome.”

Cota’s message takes only part of one page, while the rest of the newsletter lists the kind, address and date of thousands of incidents. Photos and descriptions of sex offenders are displayed for each police beat within Mesa.

Councilwoman Dina Higgins said the publication was informative. She didn’t scrutinize what Cota wrote but didn’t see a problem in what she considers a safe community.

“There are places in the city that don’t need a beat officer going around,” she said. “Why would you put officers somewhere where there isn’t anything going on?”

Councilman Dave Richins said the MPA’s staffing concern needs to be backed by statistics rather than rhetoric. He said it’s fine if the union editorializes in its publication and he welcomed the crime reports.

“I think the more information, the better,” he said. “I don’t have any concern at all.”

Mesa police spokesman Mike Melendez wouldn’t discuss the claims.

“We prefer not to debate staffing levels with the Mesa Police Association in the media,” Melendez said.

Cota said Mesa has “bare bones” police staffing. But he said he hasn’t compared staffing, crime rates and population levels with neighboring cities.

“That really is a very good question,” he said. “Perhaps we’ll look into that.”

Cota said he’s not aware of other unions publishing a similar newsletter. The city doesn’t have the funds to do so and Cota said he doesn’t think that’s part of the department’s core mission anyway.

“Agencies and departments all have a tendency to paint a rosy picture and say things are great regardless of how bad they are. That’s not what this paper will do. This paper will tell the truth and just be honest with that and say, this is what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s not an indictment on anybody’s management ability, it’s just a statement of how things are.”