Two former records clerks for the Sahuarita Police Department said the department is at least seven months behind in entering traffic citations and two years behind entering warnings into their computer system.
Five police officers who have left the department since January said new report writing protocols mean Sahuarita has far fewer officers on the streets patrolling and getting tips, and residents have to wait longer for help.
“We’re praying daily that the (expletive) doesn’t hit the fan,” a recently retired tenured officer said. “But the day’s coming when it does hit the fan and things are going to explode.”
The clerks said residents have to wait three times longer to get simple accident reports from the department.
The clerks and several former police officers blame the delays on new standards and methods of writing police reports that has them rewriting reports as many as six times.
In January, Sahuarita Police Chief John Noland held a 20-hour mandatory report writing and advanced investigation class. He said officers need to write chronologically, consistently and use the correct terminology. He also created another layer of review where reports are being read by at least three supervisors.
The clerks, who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the system has resulted in a months-long backlog.
“We had no input into that system,” one said. “We were just told this is the way we’re going to do that.”
She said she quit effective Sept. 29 because the job was starting to affect her health.
“I didn’t want to leave, but it was very stressful, very stressful,” she said.
Both clerks said they left because they felt the department was critically understaffed and the situation was made dramatically worse when the new system went online shortly after the January class.
“The new system was cumbersome, tedious and time consuming, it just wasn’t working,” she said. “It was like a hamster wheel going around and around and nothing was being accomplished. The command staff just doesn’t understand all of the paperwork that goes through there.”
The other clerk said no one within the department is on the same page when it comes to the new system. Sergeants, lieutenants, commanders and the chief were requesting changes to reports and they often contradicted each other, she said.
Prior to the new system being put in place, they routinely released accident and other reports within three days of the request being filed; now, it's about 10 days, she said.
“These people need information for insurance companies for accident claims and they kept having to come back,” the clerk said.
When they left the department, only one clerk remained. On Oct. 12, Noland announced he’d made arrangements for clerks from the Marana Police Department to help out until new clerks are trained.
Wes Genzer, Bev Murphy, Matt Williams, Russ Stromberg and a fifth officer who only spoke on condition of anonymity, are among nine police officers who have left the 44-member department since Noland’s class and the implementation of the new system. All five attributed their departures to the new system.
“He spent two days lecturing us, telling us how bad our reports are, but several of us have been around the block quite a few times,” and made hundreds of arrests that resulted in hundreds of convictions without any issues, the anonymous officer said.
Thanks to the new review process, officers have gone from 30 to 60 minutes on a report to spending three or more hours, and detectives are spending even more time, the officers said.
Before Noland, officers used to start each day fresh; all of their reports were finished the day before. That’s not the case anymore. They start their work week with an in-box that’s full of reports to rewrite and spend the rest of the week trying to catch up in between calls, the officers said.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said other law enforcement agencies have similar policies and procedures as Noland's when it comes to report writing.
While she’s not sure how many agencies have the extra layer of review that SPD does, she believes it is a “very good, albeit time-consuming, practice.”
Sergeants may not be identifying issues in their officers' reports and commanders may be using the secondary reviews as a way to measure their sergeants’ effectiveness, she said.
“It is also not at all unheard of for sergeants themselves to have inferior or inadequate report-writing skills. Many law enforcement officers could use additional instruction and improvement in their report writing,” LaWall wrote in an email.
Some officers may be skilled law enforcement officers, but not particularly good at writing reports, LaWall said.
“Poor reports, with missing or incomplete information, poor interviewing or investigation procedures, and shoddy word-smithing are what necessitates subsequent reviews and revision of their reports,” LaWall said.
Her prosecutors want “honest reports and reports with integrity,” but they also want reports that make sense.
“I've read lots of reports where you have to read it 20 times to figure out what the heck the officer’s talking about,” LaWall said.
Prior to Noland’s arrival in December 2014, Sahuarita rarely saw delayed police responses and officers had time to patrol neighborhoods and speak with residents about issues and concerns, all of the officers agreed.
Now, because the officers are so busy rewriting reports, response times are far longer and officers rarely get an opportunity to do community policing, the officers said. As a result, they can't get on top of small problems early to prevent them from becoming big problems, or are missing tips on everything from drug houses to burglaries.
According to statistics released by the department Nov. 1, in FY2015-16, 80 percent of SPD's calls were the result of citizen complaints, and 20 percent were generated by officers out on the streets. In FY16-17, the percentage of calls generated by the officers had fallen to 14 percent.
The officers assert that number has fallen because they were rewriting reports at the police department. Even when they are on the streets, they said officers will sit behind shopping centers to write reports.
As for response times, SPD reports indicate it took an average 21 seconds longer for officers to respond to Priority One calls during the first half of 2017, compared to FY15-16 — those are calls where serious injuries have taken place or a serious offense is in progress.
Response times for Priority Two calls in the same period increased by 40 seconds; Priority Three calls increased by one minute, 26 seconds; and Priority Four calls increased by 2 minutes, 36 seconds.
At times, there are just two officers on the street, a sergeant and an patrol officer in a town of about 30,000, the anonymous officer said. Sergeants are no longer supervising their officers, they’re handling calls, he said.
“If there’s an accident or an officer makes an arrest and takes the suspect to jail, that leaves the town uncovered,” the former officer said.
In an Oct. 12 interview, Noland said that isn't the case. Although acknowledging he has lost several officers this year, he said he has been able to maintain adequate staffing levels on the streets through the use of overtime and temporary reassignments.
Yes, officers have been called in on their days off, but they’ve become so tired of being called that they’ve begun to ignore the calls, the anonymous officer said.
The idea of community policing has gone by the wayside under Noland, the officers said.
“We used to make it a point to drive through the neighborhoods, but when they started with the report writing changes they said we need to write the reports in the station,” Murphy said. “There’d only be three cops on duty and two of them would be in the station writing reports. We wouldn’t have anyone out on the streets.”
Not only is customer service being severely impacted, but it’s leading to dangerous situations for the officers who are responding to calls alone, the officers said.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do when it’s just you, plus you don’t have backup if you’re going to get into something,” Murphy said.
And, even if there are more than one or two officers on the street, some of them are waiting until the last possible moment to respond to calls for fear of having to write a report again and again, the officers said.
In one instance, Genzer said he was on duty with six to seven officers from two shifts, and he ended up being the first one to arrive at a domestic violence call despite being the farthest from the scene.
Williams recalled an instance in which a fellow officer went to a low-priority call that was being handled by a Volunteers in Police Service because he didn’t want to respond to a sex offense call, knowing it would result in a report.
Just a few years ago, Sahuarita residents rarely had to wait more than a few minutes for an officer to arrive. That’s not the case anymore.
“There were calls that would hold for an hour because no one was available to take it because they’d be rewriting a report from a week ago because the chief didn’t like the way it was worded,” Murphy said.
The officer morale is at an all-time low, the officers said.
“It’s a morale-breaker when all you are doing is sitting in your car writing reports and when your number one job is to go out to talk to people and see what’s going on their neighborhoods,” Williams said.
“I want to see change and accountability because if my family calls 911, there better be a good reason why that call is held,” Williams said. “I also want the job to be fun for those who are still there, those who are too afraid to come forward.”
Kim Smith | 547-9740