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KFOX14 Investigates: City facing critical shortage of police officers

El Paso police

In the city of El Paso, calls for help are taking hours to be answered and it all comes down to one thing: not enough police officers.

El Paso police are facing a critical officer shortage. KFOX14’s Chief Investigative Reporter Genevieve Curtis got to see a side to El Paso police we haven’t seen before.

KFOX14 Investigates spent 16 hours on patrol with EPPD to see firsthand what officers are up against, when every second matters.

And we are hearing from those for who called for help only to learn just how few officers the city has

This summer the home alarm system at Sheri Reiter’s west side home sounded. She was out of town, but her young adult daughter was home alone.

The alarm company, ADT immediately notified El Paso police of a burglar alarm. A dispatcher assured the alarm company, they would be sending an officer out.

But minutes ticked by.

“The alarm company told (her daughter) to hide in the house,” aid Reiter.

The Reiters, tried calling El Paso 911 from out of state and spoke to dispatchers who told them, they had not yet dispatched an officer because they had several other emergencies happening at the same time.

“I was furious, this is an emergency at my house,” said Reiter.

The 911 dispatchers assured the Reiters, as soon as an officer became available they would send them out there.

“I just want my child to be safe, I was scared. I was crying,” said Reiter.

There had been some break ins in the neighborhood

It took so long for police to arrive, ADT called again.

“I’m on hold with the customer right now, and she’s is real frightened,” the alarm operator told the police dispatcher.

“I will have a unit out there as soon as possible,” the dispatcher assured.

“I don’t have the bodies to send because my guys are at calls just like that,” explained Ron Martin, president of the El Paso Police Association.

“We have the same amount of officers as we did 20 years ago,” said Martin.

Reiter’s daughter called 911, “I’ve been waiting here for three hours. Where are the police?”

A dispatcher told her, “Just stay safe, they’re answering other emergencies right now.”

It ended up taking almost four hours before an officer arrived at the Reiter’s home.

“They are going from call to call to call to call to call all day, all night -- its non-stop,” said Martin.

Martin explained because of the critical police shortage, lower priority calls that are not life or death emergencies are seeing a frightening wait time, “It’s not on common that you wait six, seven, eight hours for an officer to get there and in my personal opinion unacceptable.”

“We need more police officers on the streets,” said Reiter.

This is what El Paso police are up against every day, a department with the same amount of officers it had 20 years ago.

“They are running frenzy right now,” said Allen.

There are a little more than 1,000 officers on the force in our growing community.

Far below what the police chief thinks would be adequate.

“With El Paso’s growth I’d say (they need) 1,700. I’ve asked for a conservative 300 (more),” said Chief Greg Allen.

Allen said for the past eight years he has been asking City Council for more officers.

“If someone calls the police that call should be answered as timely as we can possibly make it. That's where I think the department is failing because we aren't able to do that,” said Allen.

It’s a shortage that may be hard for the average El Pasoan to see, until you have to dial 911.

“When they do place that call, they want a police response and they don't find out that need, our needs, the city’s need, until they place that call one day,” said Allen.

Allen said he wants every call answered in a timely manner, but he admits that isn't a realistic expectation these days.

“When you call the police you should get a response within in 30 minutes. You shouldn’t have to schedule your whole day like you are waiting for Time Warner cable to get a police response,” said Allen.

KFOX14 Investigates dug into the FBI crime stats from last year. It shows on average, cities with at least half a million people have 29.8 officers for every 10,000 residents.

El Paso has 14.7.

El Paso police operates on priority levels, calls ranging from priority one being the most severe-- to nine being the least.

“For the person making the call it's a high priority call,” said Allen

Because of the officer shortage, the lower priority call; the longer you will have to wait.

“That's where I think we are dropping the ball,” said Allen.

It's something KFOX14 Investigates saw firsthand, while riding along with police.

Officers are running from high priority call to high priority call. Some calls demand resources from an entire command.

While on patrol overnight KFOX14 Investigates observed the massive backlog. At one point, there were two major incidents happening in the city. One was a SWAT situation the other was a serious crash. Those major incidents demanded a large police response. That meant lower priority calls were left pending. At one point there were 28 pending calls and in some cases the callers had been waiting for hours. There just wasn’t anyone to send.

“They are just going to keep pending,” explained Sgt. Robert Gomez who took KFOX14 on the ride along.

“There are times at night there are four units working certain areas of the town,” said Martin.

That means it can take hours for mid-level calls.

“I deserve to be safe, I pay taxes,” said Reiter.

Reiter said the break-in at her home showed her this serious shortage.

“It's scary,” she said. “I'm a mom on a mission now. I want police officers in my city to protect my child and everyone else’s children. I don’t need water pads and swimming pools. I need a policeman,” said Reiter.

City leaders said, they're committed to getting more badges in the streets.

“We don't want to hear these kinds of stories. But when we do, we want to face them head on and be accountable,” said Gonzalez.

But how did we get here?

Part of it can be traced back to El Paso earning the “Safest City” designation.

“It’s been a double-edged sword,” said Allen.

A designation which applauds the great work of our officers, but cuts off funding options.

“So now you are working off your own budget. We used to have cop grants, which we don't have anymore because we're a safe city,” said Martin.

It's forcing the city to pay police almost entirely through taxes.

“The community should ask itself, what are you willing to pay for? Because its expensive. It’s nothing cheap and I’m cognizant of that,” said Allen.

Plus years of a down economy kept the department from adding to its ranks.

But the union also points to years of prior city councils and city leaders not putting safety first.

“They just said, ‘Oh we are the No.1 ‘safest city' and kicked the can down the road, we are fine.’ Well now, we are playing catch up,” said Martin.

KFOX14 Investigates discovered in the last decade the city paid for three studies.

One study showed by the year 2010, El Paso should have had 1,800 officers.

A 2007 study showed the city needed to hire 500 officers on the spot.

That didn't happen.

“My chief has pushed for academies every year,” said Martin.

“I think City Council needs to do a much better job,” said Reiter.

Gonzalez said he recognizes the need.

“I think its unacceptable,” he said.

To help, the city is now tapping into new technologies -- adding cameras in different corners of town.

And he says they've talked about drones.

“We authorized more overtime. I think we’ve given all the resources we can and we need, to do more,” said Gonzalez.

City Council authorized two 80-person academies to start next year. The department loses about 50 officers a year through attrition.

But the chief explained, it takes about two years before a cadet is ready to patrol on their own.

There is now a 10-year plan in place, to hopefully add 30 officers a year to the ranks.

“The officers are going to be slow coming, that's something the city is going to have to get used to with the growth,” said Allen.

KFOX14 Investigates spent 16 hours on patrol with officers and found, while they face a shortage of manpower, there is no shortage of dedication.

“We have a vested interest in keeping El Paso safe because our own families live here,” said Gomez.

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