On Friday, October 5th, 2018, PLEA received an open letter to the residents of Phoenix from a crime victim. The author of this message approached PLEA last week to speak with us in person to explain what happened and express her serious concerns. Although PLEA knows who the author is, she has requested anonymity. PLEA did not seek her out nor did we ask her to produce any kind of statement for us. She was and is upset that she and her children were the victims of sexual predator, and that it took multiple calls to 911 and 40 minutes for police to arrive on scene. This incident speaks directly to the staffing issues that PLEA has been very outspoken on for the last several years. The contents of the letter are reprinted below.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE RESIDENTS OF PHOENIX
Some of you may have seen the sensational story of a man who was caught masturbating in front of two young girls in the Sprouts store at 19th Avenue and Northern. It had just the right mix of titillating details and absurdity to attract media attention. On Sunday, September 16, 2018, a sexual predator was exiting the Sprouts store as a woman and her two daughters, 7 and 9 years old, entered. He caught sight of the children and began vigorously rubbing himself over his clothes. Then he put his hands in his shorts and briefly fondled himself as he passed the family. The woman and her daughters continued into the store. Going in opposite directions, they put the ugliness behind them. It appeared the man continued out of the store. He did not. He quietly reversed direction and followed the little girls. He lurked among the shelves and watched them. Then when the mother’s back was turned, he approached the girls. He got within 5-8 feet of the kids and pulled his pants down exposing his genitals. He talked to the girls and began to vigorously masturbate while gyrating and moaning loudly, still talking to the little girls. The mom chased him out of the store. It wasn’t easy. He repeatedly tried to turn around and get back to the little girls. He put his hands back in his pants and rubbed himself. He tried to get around the mom and return to the kids. Mom held her ground. He did not get past her and she marched him out of the store. The store manager called 911. The mom called Crimestop and gave a detailed description of the suspect and the crime. The managers found the suspect hiding behind the grocery carts by the front door. Was he waiting for the children to leave? Was he so determined in his pursuit of them that he didn’t want to leave? The mom and the managers kept an eye on the suspect and waited for police. And they waited. Minutes passed. Mom called 911 back. There were no officers in the area to respond. No one was on the way to help. There were no police officers available. The only thing between a sexual predator and two little girls was an angry and determined mother. She waited by the door simultaneously keeping an eye on the suspect and her children. She called 911 again. The police were not even on their way. There just wasn’t anyone to respond. How do you call 911 in the 5th largest city in the nation– and there are no police officers to come? The mom called and begged for a faster response. She called a total of three times. She asked to speak with a dispatch supervisor. It didn’t matter; there was no one to help. It took 40 minutes to get a police officer to the scene. The suspect was still there by the door, being watched by the mom and store managers. He was arrested by a patrol sergeant, who was the first one to respond. His officers were all busy helping other citizens. The suspect was booked on felony and misdemeanor public sexual indecency charges, among other things. He had committed similar crimes before.
This was a crime against children by a dangerous and persistent sexual predator. It took 40 minutes for the Phoenix Police Department to get an officer on scene. This was not because the police didn’t care. It wasn’t because the police didn’t want to come. It happened because every police officer in the area was already busy handling another 911 or Crimestop calls. There simply were no officers available to respond. This incident could have ended much worse.
I know about this situation because I am that mom. The 7 and 9 year old girls exposed to this ugliness were my precious babies. I don’t call 911 very often. When I do, I generally expect an officer to show up. If I have an emergency and need a police officer, I expect one to be available. We don’t live in remote Alaska; we live in the 5th largest city in the nation. How can such a big city not have any police to respond to a legitimate emergency? I have known there was a manpower shortage in the Phoenix Police Department. It isn’t a secret. It is, however, pretty sobering to have a real emergency and be told there are just no officers available. Is the manpower problem really that bad? Yes, it is. In the time since this happened, I have researched the Phoenix Police Department’s manpower crisis and the following is what I learned.
The City of Phoenix is now the 5th largest city in the nation. We recently surpassed Philadelphia in population. For a city of 1.615 million people the city has 2,859 sworn officers. The Phoenix Police Department is responsible for policing an area of 530 square miles. We are currently the fastest growing city in the nation, in the fastest growing county.
Philadelphia is right behind Phoenix in population. The Philadelphia Police Department has significantly less area to police at 140 square miles. They currently have 6,300 sworn officers. With similar population numbers Philadelphia has more than twice the number of police officers. The Phoenix Police Department is working with half the officers and almost four times the area to cover. Let that sink in…This is not OK. This is not safe. This explains how I can call 911 on a Sunday afternoon and there is simply no one to come.
How did we get here? The Phoenix City Council and the Mayor instituted a six year hiring freeze. For six years not a single police officer was hired to replace those who retired or left the job. During that time Phoenix experienced unprecedented growth. Officers policing the city reached retirement age and left. They were not replaced. This short-sighted lack of planning by the city council has now resulted in a full blown staffing crisis. It is a public safety crisis.
Since the hiring freeze was lifted, the recruiting budget for the department has remained anemic. There are no funds to hire out of state. The police department is not actively recruiting from the military (historically an excellent source of qualified, diverse candidates). Today approximately 700 officers, almost 1/3 of the department, are eligible for retirement. The Phoenix Police Department, and policing in general, is plagued with morale issues. This means fewer officers want to continue doing the job after 20 years. Phoenix Police officers have gone 10 years without a raise and without cost of living adjustments. Benefits have been cut, and support employees have been forced to take furlough days. Under these conditions it is difficult to attract qualified applicants and retain veteran officers. The staffing numbers are not going to get better without serious intervention.
If you ask the city council or mayor about the dangerous numbers, they will brag about the recent “hundreds of officers” they have hired. I know this personally. I have spoken with city council members, and in 2016 I had occasion to talk to then Mayor Stanton about the staffing crisis. He assured me the department had just hired over three hundred officers. The problem with this is it is not keeping up with attrition. There are months the department is still losing numbers. They are running on a treadmill. Net gain is what is important. As of August 1, 2018 the department had hired 300 new officers in the last year. That sounds great…until you learn the department lost 291 officers in that same time. In a year, that is a net gain of only 9 officers. We can’t keep up, and thus far the city council’s current plan to add 525 new officers will not outpace retirements and attrition. It will not solve the problem. The public safety crisis was a topic of debate and conversation at the recent October 2, 2018 Phoenix City Council meeting. Listening to this meeting, I was shocked to learn the City of Phoenix was 19.5 million dollars under budget in the last fiscal year (ending June 30, 2018). Why, I ask, do we have a budget surplus but no money to hire an adequate number of police officers? Phoenix Police Chief Jerry Williams spoke at the council meeting. I heard her say “Our community is safe with the current staffing levels we have.” Chief, will all due respect, I did not feel safe standing outside Sprouts two weeks ago detaining a sexual predator because there were no officers to come arrest him. Why did it take 40 minutes and a total of four 911 calls to get an officer on scene of a felony sex crime? My girls were not safe as their mom tried to protect them, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the predator intent on getting to them. Chief, how were all your officers tied up on other crimes and therefore unavailable? That is not adequate staffing. That is not adequate policing. I call bullshit.
In my research, I found that nationally there is a generally accepted ratio of a minimum of 2.5 officers for every 1000 residents in a city. For Phoenix today, that would be a police force of between 4000 and 4200 sworn officers. At current hiring rates it would take 228 months, or 19 years, to bring our staffing to 4000 officers. That number is sufficient only assuming Phoenix growth suddenly stops for 19 years.
The Phoenix Police Department is not only dangerously short of police officers and detectives. 911 and Crimestop is just as short-handed. Officially the department is short 13 dispatchers. That doesn’t sound too bad. Except that the city recently eliminated 40 positions in 911 and dispatch. Fudging the numbers to hide mismanagement doesn’t fix the problem. They are manipulating numbers and playing a shell game to disguise the depth of the problem. 911 operators are the angels at the end of the phone when your husband is having a heart attack. They are the calm voice to help you give your location after a traffic accident. They send the rescuers. The city needs well qualified, well trained 911 operators. Calling 911 and getting a busy signal or being put on hold is not just the stuff of nightmares. It is becoming reality in Phoenix.
The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association has been sounding the alarm of manpower shortages. They have been beating this drum in the media for the last several years. They have been yelling into the wind trying to highlight the issues of dangerously low staffing and police manpower. This has included many media interviews, attendance at City Council and Public Safety Subcommittee meetings, attendance at City Budget Hearings, and meetings with and written communications between city leaders (to include the mayor, city council members, and the city manager). The city council and mayor have ignored this problem. They have tried to hide and disguise the crisis.
Why should you care? You must care because someday you may need to call 911. Someday you may have an emergency, and there needs to be an officer to come. I called 911 and was told there were no officers available. I had an emergency. I called Crimestop, I called 911. I called three times. Others called. No one came. There was no one available. For 40 minutes I waited. Please don’t ignore this. It may be you calling 911 next time. You may not have 40 minutes to wait. We need to hold the Phoenix City Council accountable. It is time to stop the bullshit and games. The police chief and city council must stop manipulating the numbers to hide the depth of the problem. The police manpower crisis is your crisis. Call your city council member today. Complain. Let your friends, coworkers, and neighbors know how bad this problem is. This cannot remain the Phoenix City Council’s best kept, dirty secret.