By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post
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DENVER — Denver’s city leaders want to spend a record amount of money in 2023 on police, fire and jail services as crime continues to rise, response times lengthen and officers remain difficult to recruit.
The Denver Department of Public Safety encompasses the city’s police, sheriff and fire departments as well as the 911 call center. In total, Mayor Michael Hancock allotted $611 million to the department in his proposed 2023 budget – 36% of the city’s $1.66 billion budget and the largest amount dedicated to any single city department. The 2023 request is 8% greater than the $568 million appropriated in 2022 and 27% greater than the $481 million spent in 2021, when budgets were slashed due to economic fears from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The expansion in the public safety budget comes two years after mass protests of police brutality. During the protests, some community members called on the city to reduce the police budget and use the money to address the root causes of crime, like inadequate housing and mental health infrastructure.
Hancock touted the spending as a way to reduce crime and response time.
“We want to make sure we appropriately cover our communities and have a certain appropriate ratio of police officers to our population,” Hancock said in a news conference announcing his budget. “It’s about police being a part of the solution to crime. What you won’t get from me and my administration is believing that law enforcement is the only tool to stop crime and improve safety.”
City Council is scheduled to discuss the mayor’s budget at meetings Thursday and Friday — which can be viewed online on Denver 8 TV — and submit recommended changes by Monday. City Council will hold a public hearing on the budget 5:30 p.m. Oct. 24.
Here are some of the new purchases public safety leaders are asking for:
More police officers
Denver Police Department leaders are asking for $431,200 to fund 43 new positions beginning in December 2023: 30 officers, four sergeants, four corporals and five detectives. If approved, that will bring the department’s total sworn strength from 1,596 to 1,639.
The extra officers will help shorten response times and manage a rise in reported crime, Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said. Average response times for 911 calls about in-progress and violent crimes increased to 15 minutes in 2022 from 11 minutes in 2019, he said.
“Things will only get worse if we don’t address our staffing issues,” he said.
The department also wants $8.4 million to fill 188 open officer positions, though Thomas acknowledged the department wouldn’t be able to make that many hires in one year.
Recruitment has not kept up with attrition in recent years, according to department data. In 2021, the city had the budget for 105 recruits but only graduated 51. That same year, 145 officers left the force.
As of Sept. 16, about 11% of both sworn and civilian positions in the department were vacant, Thomas said.
The staffing challenges come as reported crime continues to rise in the city. The department estimates 7,161 violent crimes and 49,553 property crimes to be reported in 2022 — a 48% increase in violent crime and an 88% increase in property crime since 2017.
The Denver Police Department is asking for $214,800 for two more forensic scientists to “support increased demand for testing evidence containing fentanyl.”
Department leaders believe the implementation of House Bill 22-1326 — which made possession of even a dusting of the lethal synthetic opioid a felony — will increase the amount of such evidence processed by the lab. In 2020, the lab processed 279 fentanyl-related items and the department estimates the lab will process 2,666 items in 2023.
Non-emergency call takers
The Department of Public Safety is asking for $641,400 to expand a pilot program and add 10 new employees who will take non-emergency calls in the 911 call center. Non-emergency calls outnumber emergency calls, according to department data.
“It has been a resounding success,” Denver Public Safety Director Armando Saldate said of the pilot program.
The 911 center has suffered from significant understaffing as call volume increased, which has caused wait times to balloon. Dedicating employees to non-emergency calls allows emergent calls to be answered much faster, Saldate said.
In 2020, 911 call takers answered 93% of the 1.6 million calls received in less than 15 seconds, according to department data. In 2022, the department estimated call takers will answer 60% of the 2 million calls received in less than 15 seconds.
Body cameras for sheriff’s deputies
The sheriff’s department is requesting $233,500 to buy 110 more body cameras for deputies. If approved, all deputies will have body cameras by the end of 2023.
The department first started outfitting deputies with body cameras in 2019. The surveillance cameras in the city’s two jails do not record audio and department leaders have said audio recordings provide important context when evaluating incidents.
The department is also asking for $1.1 million to upgrade its current 373-camera surveillance system.
The Denver Fire Department is asking for $611,800 to establish a new 16-person fire company in northeast Denver as well as $230,300 for three firefighters and three lieutenants to cover time off. The Fire Department has not experienced the same high turnover rates as the police and sheriff departments but is facing increased response time and increased calls for service.
In 2022, firefighters responded to 70% of calls within four minutes, which is down from the 77% recorded in 2020. In that same time, the number of calls increased 5% from 111,242 in 2020 to 116,313 in 2022.
The department is also asking for $215,400 for three positions to provide outreach to people who are homeless and to mitigate fire risks in encampments and other temporary shelters. The number of fires connected to encampments has grown significantly, according to department data.
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