Is your safety at risk? Valley police struggle to keep up as growth brings more people

Nampa patrol sergeant weighs in on effects of city’s police shortage

The Nampa Police Department is facing a tough challenge with crime increasing and a shortage of officers. Nampa officers have had to stop responding to low-level incidents, and managers are worried about burnout.
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The Nampa Police Department is facing a tough challenge with crime increasing and a shortage of officers. Nampa officers have had to stop responding to low-level incidents, and managers are worried about burnout.

The Nampa Police Department won’t send an officer if a mother calls to say her 9-year-old son is out of control. That child might attack the parent and overpower her. Now, she’s hurt, and he’s a criminal facing serious consequences, albeit as a juvenile.

“That can happen and has happened,” said Jason Kimball, a Nampa police administrative lieutenant.

This is the result of a declining number of officers per capita in Nampa. The department has stopped sending officers to low-level incidents — like the child out of control — because it doesn’t have enough to cover every call, Kimball said.

“Same thing with, say, a reckless driver,” Kimball said. “We don’t respond to that. What happens if it ends up in a crash five minutes later?”

Across the Treasure Valley, law enforcement agencies are grappling with population growth. Officers, especially in Nampa, are overworked, raising concerns about their performance. Several agencies plan to hire more officers, putting them in direct competition with each other for a shrinking pool of recruits.

Boise wants to hire 35 more officers over the next five to seven years. Meridian has a few open positions and several new hires who aren’t yet ready to patrol the streets on their own. The Ada County Sheriff’s Office is preparing to hire nine new deputies, including four to staff the county jail, as part of a proposed $4.7 million budget increase.

Nampa may be facing the toughest challenge among the Valley’s law-enforcement agencies. Over the past five years, as crime rates per capita dipped in Boise, Meridian and Ada County, they increased in Nampa. To meet their most pressing demands, officers have stopped responding to low-level incidents.

“Just this morning at one point, we didn’t have any officers that were available, and we had three calls pending,” Patrol Sgt. Donald Peck said Monday. “As soon as an officer became available, we didn’t necessarily want them going to the next call ... because we need someone to be available if that in-progress call comes up where somebody is in danger.”

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Police blocked off a two-block area on Ustick Road and N. McKinney Street in Boise Thursday, April 27, 2017 in response to a report of multiple gunshots in the area. Darin Oswald

Responding to calls isn’t enough

Nampa’s problem could get even worse. By the end of July, Kimball said, the department will have spent all of the overtime money the City Council allotted for 2018, with two months left in the budget year. To keep patrol shifts staffed, he said, the department is cutting spending in other areas, such as a planned expansion of its evidence storage area.

“In the next few months … it’s probably going to be a little bit more drastic, where there is actually criminal activity that we’re not going to be going to anymore,” Kimball said.

Officers are working about 20 percent more hours than they were five years ago, he said. Response times have slowed by about a minute.

Nampa leaders worry about officers burning out, endangering themselves and the Nampans they serve.

“When you’re tired, you can’t give what you should be giving,” said Victor Rodriguez, a city councilman and former Nampa detective. “As a resident of Nampa, I want a police officer that is going to be energetic, be strong, be smart and do his job and do what he can for me.”

Boise and Meridian consider community policing — having officers work in one area and mingle with residents to build relationships — a central part of their mission. Boise wants its officers to spend at least one-third of their time on proactive work, such as mingling with people in neighborhoods, attending community events or analyzing data to combat crime patterns, Chief Bill Bones said. Meridian wants officers to spend the majority of their time on these activities, Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea said, though they’re not quite there.

Rodriguez and his fellow Nampa council members voted recently to add six police officers. Mayor Debbie Kling supported the addition, based in part on a survey she commissioned that identified public safety and street repairs as residents’ top two priorities for city government, spokeswoman Amy Bowman said.

But six new officers are a fraction of what an analyst recommends. So Nampa will continue having no time for proactive, community-style policing.

“We just respond to calls,” Kimball said.

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Cpl. Allen Williamson receives his Purple Heart medal Monday from Nampa Police Chief Curtis Homer. Darin Oswald

A hiring spree — and then a lag

On Feb. 9, 2005, Nampa police officer Allen Williamson tried to pull over a car driven by Mariano Perez Jr., who was wanted for threatening his estranged girlfriend and three other people with a pistol.

Perez fled, crashed the car, got out and ran away. When Williamson caught up to him, Perez pulled a gun and shot him four times at point-blank range. Williamson survived, partly because his bullet-proof vest stopped two of the bullets, but one bullet struck his upper torso and caused major damage.

Perez is serving two life sentences in Idaho prison without the possibility of parole.

The incident spurred a hiring spree at the Nampa Police Department, which added about 30 officers, Kimball said. But in the years following, the department hasn’t replaced officers who left. Nampa now has slightly fewer officers per capita than it did before Williamson was shot.

The department received 73,689 calls for service in 2017, according to Ken Keene, an analyst the city hired to assess policing needs. That’s an average of 630 per officer, compared with 576 in Boise and 429 in Meridian.

Based on a national formula that takes features like population and crime rates into account, Keene concluded Nampa should have 41 more officers — almost seven times what it’s set to get in the next budget year.

As a result, the department has reworked its response plan to eliminate certain types of calls, such as non-injury crashes on private property, code enforcement complaints and items stolen from cars.

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While crime in Ada County has declined in recent years, it has increased in Nampa, stretching a thin police force to the point that it has stopped responding to some low-level incidents, such as reports of reckless driving and children out of control.

Public safety, officer health at risk

Kimball said Nampa’s officers are tired. Like Rodriguez, he worries about their performance and their health. Officers are burning out more quickly, he said, frustrated by suspects’ behavior and what they see as failings of the justice system.

Depression is more common, though the department is working to provide doctors and counselors. Officers aren’t working out as much, and their physical health is declining. Injuries are more frequent, both on and off the clock. On average, about nine officers are injured at a given time — two to three times as many as if the department were staffed appropriately, Kimball said.

Meridian officers, too, have worked more overtime this year than normal, Basterrechea said. The department had about 10 positions open or newly filled for much of the year, he said. That’s shifted responsibility to the veterans, he said, because a trainee can’t be counted on to handle the workload of a seasoned officer.

Peck said he’s struggling to fill Nampa’s overtime shifts because officers are tired.

“They want to have time with their families,” he said. “We’ve got to get these guys some reprieve. That way they can spend time with family, so they don’t end up in divorce situations or having kids that get upset with them and not having that good parental bond.”

Besides officer health, straining police staffing causes public safety problems. An overworked officer is more likely to crash a car, act irritably toward a civilian or use force when it’s not necessary, Basterrechea said.

The Boise Police Department also monitors officer hours to make sure those problems don’t crop up, spokeswoman Haley Williams said. So far, she said, officers haven’t shown a pattern of poor performance.

Kimball said he doesn’t know of any officers who have used excessive force due to fatigue.

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Investigators work at South Wild Phlox Way near South Cole Road, the scene of an officer-involved shooting. A man was taken to the hospital after police shot him about 7:30 a.m. New Years Day. Katherine Jones

A more violent population?

Across the valley, the calls officers respond to have grown more serious. From 1989 to 2004, Kimball said, Nampa officers were involved in three shootings. From 2005 until now, there were 16.

Between 2015 and 2018, officers were battered 80 times, not counting the past few months. That “easily doubled” the rate from 10 years ago, Kimball said. “There’s not an end in sight to that,” he said.

Meridian has seen a similar trend. In 2015, Basterrechea said, 12 officers were assaulted. Last year, 34 were.

This is exactly the scenario Bones, Boise’s chief, says he wants to avoid. That’s why he wants to add seven officers next year, adding more than $700,000 to the city’s budget, and dozens more over the next several years. Attacks on Boise officers have increased over the past several years, but not by as much as Meridian’s numbers.

Boise’s department prides itself on sending officers to car crashes even when no one’s hurt and assigning detectives to investigate misdemeanor property crimes, Bones said. Those interactions with people help build relationships that make them more likely to report crimes.

Boise’s crime rate is lower than the nationwide average, with 26.4 of the eight “most heinous” crimes, according to federal standards, per 1,000 people in 2016, the latest year for which data are available. The crimes include murder, rape, arson, robbery and aggravated assault.

Nampa’s rate was 33.1, and Meridian’s was 17, according to Idaho State Police records. The nationwide average was 28.4, according to the FBI.

The raw numbers of the eight crimes in Boise fell between 2011 and 2016, despite population growth of almost 13,000 people. Meridian’s number increased by about 350, Nampa’s by about 260.

Bones believes Boise’s crime rate could balloon if the city were to allow police numbers to decline and stop the proactive approach that he, and other community policing advocates, say discourages crime from taking hold.

“I could cut all my community policing outreach tomorrow, and I could reduce Boise’s staffing needs,” he said. “Five years from now, for sure, you would need way more officers than we have today just to maintain a purely reactive policing model.

“Everything would degrade and all of a sudden, you’d see more vandalism. You’d see more fights. You’d see more open containers. You’d see less engagement by the community in how they approach problem-solving. And eventually we’d end up more like some of the older cities in the nation … where you can’t ever catch up.”

Despite high crime and a lack of proactive policing, he said, departments in cities like Boston and New York have about twice as many officers per capita as Boise’s 1.3 per 1,000 residents. Nampa has fewer than 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents. Meridian, with its minuscule crime rate, has 1.07.

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Police have cordoned off a number of businesses west of Peterson Toyota on the south side of Fairview Avenue following an office-involved shooting late Monday night. Katherine Jones

Good candidates are hard to find

Even if the Nampa City Council came up with the money, adding 41 officers wouldn’t turn the police department around overnight.

It would be hard just to find enough good applicants to fill those spots. Kimball and Meridian’s Basterrechea said their cities’ applicant pools have shrunk by about 50 percent over their last five years.

Fewer people applied to be Boise officers this year than last, Williams said, though not by as wide a margin. The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has seen fewer applicants in the couple years, too, spokesman Patrick Orr said.

Law enforcement leaders blame safety risks, a strong job market and nationwide disrespect, mistrust and dislike of law enforcement officers stemming from a string of high-profile police shootings.

“Who really wants to go into a job where every single thing you do and say is going to be scrutinized, and you run the risk of being assaulted every single day and vilified?” Basterrechea said.

The difficulty in recruiting isn’t just a matter of numbers. To become sworn officers, applicants must be qualified. Increasingly, they are not.

“We have more candidates who don’t get through our initial screening process than ever before,” Orr said.

Kimball said he wouldn’t want to hire all 41 officers in a single year anyway, because it takes about three years on the job for an officer to operate on his or her own with only limited supervision.

Rodriguez, the Nampa city councilman, focused his campaign in 2017 on improving public safety. He said Nampa should add officers in pursuit of that goal.

Money is the obstacle. The six officers Nampa is set to hire next year will add more than $400,000 to the city’s budget — at a time when the council and mayor’s office are trying to trim spending and bring down the tax levy, one of the highest in the Treasure Valley. The city hopes to secure a grant that would pay for more officers in future years.

“Next year is a whole different year. We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Rodriguez said. “I think we should be up 30, 40 officers in the next 10 years, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Video Producer Kelsey Grey contributed. Sven Berg: 208-377-6275, @SvenBerg51