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Chief: YPD weathering economic downturn by maximizing resources
This story is one in a series — Behind the Badge: Yuma Police Department — that looks behind the scenes at issues facing the YPD.
Those interested in applying to be a police officer with Yuma Police Departmetn can do so on the city of Yuma's website at http://yumaaz.gov, or in person at the human resources office at Yuma City Hall, One City Plaza.
Yes, Yuma Police Chief John Lekan would like to have more officers on the street.
But he's confident the Yuma Police Department has enough officers to adequately protect the community and its residents despite the economic downturn and its impact on the budget that led to the elimination of some positions that had been vacant.
Through careful planning, YPD avoided having to lay off any officers in contrast to other law enforcement agencies around the state that lost hundreds of officers due to the economy, he said.
“We did have to restructure some of our responses,” Lekan said. “We had to maximize our resources to the needs of the community.”
Top priority is given to life-threatening situations and urgent calls for service, such as a crime with a weapon in progress or an accident with injuries, he said.
“All our staffing and systems are set up for zero to little delay in such cases. Our radio system is built around the urgency of the calls.”
Other calls may take longer to respond to, he said. For example, homeowners who report finding their homes had been burgled while they were away may have to wait 45 minutes to an hour for an officer to become available.
“It's not a perfect system,” Lekan said. “But we had to make adjustments to keep a balanced budget while meeting the needs of the community.”
One adjustment was to disband the bicycle unit in 2009 to put more “boots on the ground,” he said. However, YPD still has bike certified officers who work as needed for special events.
Lekan said that before the recession, YPD had budget authorization for 177 officers and 92 support personnel. That's nearly in line with the average of two officers for each 1,000 population, depending on the needs of the individual community.
“But in my career, we've never been at 177,” the chief said. “We've always been a few short because of attrition.”
The last eight years, YPD has been authorized for 163 officers, and currently has four vacant positions.
But some good things are happening, Lekan said.
The Yuma City Council in the 2012-13 budget authorized funding to fill the four vacant positions.
In addition, YPD is the recipient of an estimated $1 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program to hire eight additional officers over the next three years.
“Eight new officers will be the equivalent of a whole squad ... about a 5 percent increase in our force,” Lekan said.
As part of the grant process, the city will be responsible for any cost over the $1 million for the eight new offices, he said. YPD also will be required to budget for and retain the grant-funded positions after the grant expires, when the economy hopefully will have improved.
“We've been aggressively seeking alternative funding to help us through lean budget times so we can continue to meet the community's needs” Lekan said.
In addition to the new grant, five officers were funded through a previous COPS grant received in 2010. YPD also has received several other federal and state grants to help fund various programs.
Lekan said YPD will be aggressively recruiting applicants and hiring. But he is concerned about competition heating up, especially in the Phoenix metropolitan area, as agencies gear up to restaff their forces as the economy begins to recover.
“It's always difficult to find eligible people,” he said. “Now we will have to compete with those other agencies to hire. We're always working on ways to make Yuma an attractive place to come and work without giving them a pot of gold.”
And the pool of applicants seems to be smaller, Lekan observed. He noted that in 1987, when he applied, there were about 600 applicants; today there might be 200. Only a handful actually end up on the street as police officers.
Applicants must be at least 21, be U.S. citizens and have no criminal history or past drug use. They need to meet the physical standards to do the job, be confident, able to act under stress and possess such skills as communication and problem solving. They also need to pass a written examination to demonstrate aptitude and reading and writing skills.
That test weeds out a lot of applicants, Lekan said.
“We're picky and particular in who we hire,” he said. “I think the community expects that … demands it. Officers do carry a gun and have the ability to take away a person's freedom.”
New officers hired with the COPS grant must be veterans, Lekan said. That not only helps provide jobs for the nation's warriors, it also offers a pool of applicants with the required physical fitness and many of the skills needed to be police officers.
Lekan noted that several current police officers are veterans. Many others are home grown, and often have other family members who also are on the force. That includes several couples as well as brothers and some who are second- or third-generation police officers.
A major concern, Lekan said, is that the training academies have no vacancies for new recruits until November, adding to the already nearly year-long recruitment and training process.
A couple of programs help YPD stretch its manpower resources, Lekan said.
One is a volunteer program that is popular with winter visitors, who lend a hand with such chores as fingerprinting, data entry and traffic control at special events.
YPD also has an agreement with other local and federal law enforcement agencies to help each other in an emergency. “It's a phone call away when we get strapped,” he said.
He concluded: “I challenge anyone to have better law enforcement than we have here.”