February 21, 2017
For several weeks, concern has been voiced over police department hiring as it relates to Prescott’s PSPRS unfunded obligation. The criticism centers on the decision to hire four officers in advance of the PSPRS reform measure of a Tier 3 defined contribution plan, which will take effect July 1, 2017. I appreciate this opportunity to explain my decision and the factors I took into consideration. There have been a number of comments and criticisms about the timing of the hires, and concern about how much all of this will cost the taxpayers. With this letter I hope to clear up some of the misconceptions around these issues.
The Prescott Police Department has an authorized budgeted staffing level of 68 sworn positions; this reflects a reduction of seven officers over the past two years. When the decision was made last fall, to hire four new officers who would attend academy in January 2017, the police department had five vacant officer positions and seven officers in field training, but not yet working independently. The staffing shortage had a negative impact on all department operations including patrol, investigations, traffic and community services. All of these were operating well below optimum staffing levels. Gaps in patrol coverage continue to be met by reassigning officers from specialty assignments or achieving minimum staffing using officers working overtime.
Training for police officers is provided through the Northern Arizona Regional Training Academy (NARTA); two basic training academies are offered each year and coincide with a college academic semester. The four new recruits began academy training January 9, 2017. One recruit resigned, leaving three who will graduate May 25 and will proceed to field training as certified police officers. They will not be fully trained as “solo capable” officers until September 17, 2017. There have been suggestions that waiting to hire an officer until after July 1 would have only resulted in a delay of a just a few weeks. This is not accurate. In fact, waiting to hire after July 1 would have created a delay of fully 18 months, since the next academy class would not graduate until December 2017 or complete field training until April 2018. I decided not to burden our community with such a prolonged period of diminished service levels because of the potential impact to public safety, and the ill effects of further exhausting officers already stretched too thin.
Several attempts have been made to estimate the financial impact of hiring prior to Tier 3 taking effect. Please keep in mind the individuals hired in January replace officers in Tier 2 who had resigned from the department. Therefore, the financial impact of these new hires to PSPRS liability is cost neutral. This is an important consideration going forward as it pertains to hiring lateral officers - those already certified, trained and experienced who would be a tremendous asset to the City of Prescott. While Tier 3 reforms stand to improve PSPRS liabilities over time, the opportunity to hire high quality, experienced lateral officers is vital to maintain a workforce balanced with a mix of experience and youth to be fully prepared to meet the challenges of a growing community and emerging public safety concerns.
I have a profound understanding of the difficult decisions City leadership, and ultimately the voters, must make regarding PSPRS. Responsible management of taxpayers’ money is an aspect of my role as your police chief that I take very seriously. My first priority is to protect the people we serve from harm and keep our community safe. To achieve this objective, we must maintain a force of qualified, capable, and well trained police officers. In my professional opinion, hiring those officers at the time we did helped to meet that objective.
Debora Black, Chief of Police
City of Prescott