AUSTIN (KXAN) – It’s city budget time in Austin and staffing numbers for the city’s fire and police departments are starting to take shape.
Both city police and fire are having troubles meeting objectives — for police it’s several aspects of policing. For fire, it’s increasing response times and fatigue from firefighters who are working double-time because of insufficient staffing numbers.
The Austin City Council is set to vote on the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget this month.
APD’S “Reactive” police force
“We’re not only short of officers; we’re extremely short of detectives that we need to add,” Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told KXAN. “Our officers and detectives that work robbery, homicide and child abuse are extremely overworked and have way too many cases to work for one person.”
The department’s annual statistics do show detectives having trouble solving investigations known as Part I Violent and Property Crimes. These crimes include: Homicide, Cold Case, Sex Crimes, Sex Offender Apprehension and Registration, Robbery, Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, Crisis Intervention Team, Special Investigations Unit; Property crime case investigation: Burglary, Financial/White Collar Crimes, Commercial Burglary, Auto Theft, Animal Cruelty, Arrest Review
APD records show detectives “cleared” 16.3 percent of these crimes in 2016-2017 after the department expected to only clear 15.1 percent during that year. This means for fiscal year 2016-2017, APD did not close 83.3 percent of the cases made in this category during the last fiscal year.
APD needs 100 more officers on the streets today to begin turning that department into a proactive police force again, Casaday said. For the past several years, Casaday said his department has spent the majority of its time answering 911 calls.
“We are getting our 911 calls answered, but that’s all officers are doing. All they do from the time they come to work until the time they get home is answer 911 calls,” Casaday told KXAN. “Years ago, before we started talking about these numbers, officers had time to get out and do traffic enforcement, they had time to get out and do active patrol — proactive patrol, but now with just a responsive department, because of our inability to grow,” Casaday said.
The department’s latest figures support Casaday’s assessment. APD expects a 19 percent decrease in the traffic citations it’ll issue during 2017-2018 fiscal year, according to city council records. APD’s traffic enforcement issued 156,088 tickets during the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
APD expects to issue only 126,708 tickets during the upcoming fiscal year.
“And the people that are suffering the most out of this are the citizens. Because, we get calls every day — angry citizens — angry that we do not have people out running radar in school zones, out on the highways, in their neighborhoods. I don’t blame them. They’re not getting what they’re paying for,” Casaday said.
APD’s Organized Crime figures show the number of gang member-involved offenses in Austin reached 2,449 incidents, the highest since 2014. The department expects to see 1,916 gang-related offenses in 2017-2018.
But, during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, APD estimated it would see only 1,874 gang-related offenses, but by the close of the fiscal year, the actual number climbed to 2,449 — meaning APD missed this projection by more than 30 percent.
The shortage in officer numbers is also causing officers to work overtime to cover work other officers would have performed had officers been hired to cover, Casaday said. That extra work means less time with family, more time on the clock and driving down the quality of APD’s work, according to the police association president.
“There’s work being left undone that should be done — and I think that you probably look and see that it might have something to do with the amount of staffing we had and not enough eyes looking things where it should have been.”
AFD’S $71 million in overtime likely won’t be much better
We took the Austin Fire Department’s projected budget to Austin Firefighter’s Association President Bob Nicks. City council records show AFD’s only added a net total of 62 positions to the department’s classified service rosters since 2012.
Those positions have to be approved by Austin City Council.
AFD’s firefighter staffing numbers have also changed very little since 2012 with only three more firefighter classified positions at the close of the 2016-2017 fiscal year than the department had in 2012.
Austin fire’s 2017-2018 staffing numbers got a boost from the department’s takeover of Emergency Services Division No. 4 earlier this year, adding around 30 additional fire personnel to the department’s roster, city records show.
That lack of staffing is partly to blame on the city settling a 2014 employment discrimination case where the U.S. Justice Department accused AFD of civil rights violations, Nicks said. The Feds accused AFD of discriminating against blacks and Hispanics who applied to be firefighters.
The original complaint was filed in 2012, but took two years to resolve. During that time, AFD froze hiring of new firefighters.
The department is still dealing with the impacts of that today.
“One thing people don’t need to worry about is firefighters showing up at their door when they’re called,” Nicks told KXAN.
The problems related to stagnant staffing numbers at AFD isn’t making an impact on response times, but is forcing fewer firefighters to service a city’s that’s seen population numbers grow by the hundreds of thousands of people, Nicks said.
In 2016, the stagnant AFD staffing hit taxpayers hard. City finance records show AFD’s overtime payments topped out at $71 million. Some of that overtime number is attributed to smaller staffing.
“All they’re trying to do is fill in to make sure when that alarm goes off, the firefighters will show up on your doorstep and solve your problem,” Nicks said, explaining some firefighters are working double — sometimes triple time to fill spots more staffing would have covered.
But, the longer hours and bigger paychecks are coming at a cost to those who respond when the call goes out, “At some point it doesn’t matter if you’re making more money, you just don’t want to leave your family … you’re tired from the last shift — you don’t want to go in,” Nicks said.
The good news: Nicks said in 18 months AFD will have turned its staffing problems around. Nicks projects over that time the department will have passed enough firefighters through its training program in order to get AFD staffing back to where it belongs.
As of today, that would take 100 more firefighters than are on the ground now.