Lance Briggs moved into his far north Fort Worth home in 1989 and has watched the area grow — along with police response times, which are the longest in the city.
“I get the stats from the Police Department,” said Briggs, president of the Summerfields Neighborhood Association, “and I saw one priority 1 response time was around 40 minutes. If you've got someone breaking into your house, 40 minutes is a long time to wait.”
Priority 1 response times — those in which an immediate threat is involved — averaged 11 minutes, 42 seconds through the first half of this year in the north division. That’s nearly two minutes longer than in the rest of Fort Worth, according to city data. Briggs and city leaders hope a new, sixth police patrol division will reduce the times.
The current north division stretches more than 100 square miles from Yucca Street near downtown to as far north as Texas Motor Speedway and northwest past Lake Worth.
The city officially began the roughly two-year process of creating the department’s sixth division as Fort Worth’s 2016 fiscal year started in October. The southern boundary will start at Loop 820 and run north along both sides of Interstate 35W until Texas Motor Speedway, just past Texas 114, a smaller coverage area than the current north division.
Citywide, average response times for priority 1 calls increased by 70 seconds from 2011 through the first half of this year to 9 minutes, 44 seconds. Priority 2 (situations that aren’t an immediate threat but have potential to escalate) and priority 3 calls (do not pose potential threat to life or property) also spiked.
The lagging times correlate with Fort Worth’s growth over the past five years. The citywide police officer-to-resident ratio has widened from 1 to 477 to 1 to 499 since 2010.
The north division, where Fort Worth has grown the most in that time, is hindered by the fact that the division headquarters is near Meacham Airport — 21 miles from the northern boundary at TMS — and by ongoing construction on Interstate 35, said Councilman Dennis Shingleton. His District 7 covers the northernmost area of the city.
A new sixth division would help with both issues.
“The realization that there was a shortcoming here, we've known that for some time,” he said. “[The new division] is going to make a significant impact on the response times north of 820.”
New division headquarters
By 2018, the sixth division should have 110 officers at a new 23,000-square-foot division headquarters, according to interim Police Chief Rhonda Robertson’s presentation to the City Council in August. The city has requested proposals for construction of the building, said Councilman Cary Moon, who represents District 4, just north of 820. A site has not been chosen.
By 2018, the sixth police division should house 110 officers at a new 23,000-square-foot headquarters.
The new division will include a captain — a position expected to be filled in 2018 — plus five lieutenants, 13 sergeants, nine detectives, 70 patrol officers and 12 neighborhood patrol officers. A civilian staff of 13 is also planned.
Fort Worth residents want a full police presence whether it involves responding to crime or not, Moon said.
“That presence does more than just deter criminal activity,” he said. “I think it gives that far north part of Fort Worth more of a connection to the city.”
The cost for fully staffing and supplying the division with equipment will be around $28.7 million over three years, according to Robertson’s presentation.
Around $19 million was set aside in the city’s 2016 budget, including $14 million for division headquarters and $3.5 million for adding 25 officers.
After his swearing-in ceremony last week, new Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald said he was “thankful” Robertson pushed the proposal.
“It’s not an overnight fix,” he said, “but the fact that Chief Robertson and the mayor and the City Council were able to get that moving in the right direction, it takes a lot to get the pre-planning process out of the way.”
City Manager David Cooke said the city was able to move forward with plans for the division as the recession years passed and property values increased.
Outgrowing police staff
Moon said he has “been pushing for this city to move faster than the speed of government” to create the new division. He and Shingleton worried that the population growth of their districts would lap the growth of police.
Since 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, the sixth division area has grown by 17 percent, increasing from a population of 146,039 to 170,885. That’s a bigger jump than the other five divisions by more than 11 percent.
Fort Worth as a whole has grown by 60,000 since 2011, with around half of that in what will be the new sixth division.
Meanwhile, the number of sworn officers increased from 1,555 to 1,589 since 2010, an increase of just 9.7 percent, according to the department’s annual reports.
Different areas of the city have different needs. For example, the south, population 183,759, had 61,000 calls compared to 27,500 in the new sixth.
170,855 Estimated population of new sixth police patrol division
New problems could surface
Whether crime is frequent or not, it’s never ideal to have large swaths of the city unpoliced, said Rick Van Houten, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.
“When there's a call deep north [Fort Worth], and the closest unit is 20 minutes away, that's a problem,” he said.
Not only does that situation cause a problem for residents, Van Houten said, it could put officers at risk, too, as their assisting units might also take longer to respond.
Van Houten said Fort Worth’s issue is twofold. The department’s 1,589 officers have to cover both a sprawling area of around 340 square miles and a growing population expected to exceed 1 million by 2030.
The staffing problem might be alleviated in far north Fort Worth, but another could be growing elsewhere. Response times in the city’s west division, where the planned Walsh Ranch development will soon fall under the department’s watch, rose from 8 minutes, 14 seconds for priority 1 calls in 2013 to 9 minutes, 16 seconds this year.
“The sixth division is addressing a problem that really started becoming a problem five years ago,” Van Houten said. “That’s what’s happening now on the west side of Fort Worth. Not only do we have to worry about a sixth division, but we have to start thinking about a seventh division.”
Van Houten said he didn’t want to place blame, but said it’s “unfortunate” that the creation of a new division took as long as it did.
“The biggest issue with staffing in the Police Department is that by the time you recruit, train and develop an officer into a fully self-sufficient employee, it’s almost two years,” he said.
Rusty Fuller, president of the North Fort Worth Alliance, said he and other community leaders in far north Fort Worth are satisfied with the number of police officers coming their way.
“We believe it’s reasonable,” he said. “We’d like it to be a higher number of officers and faster, but you can only get so many qualified policemen.”
Price said the department’s new Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex should allow three classes of recruits to graduate per year.
The number — not the quality — of officers has been the problem in far north Fort Worth, Fuller said.
“We are not faulting the Police Department for their performance,” he said. “That is not the issue here. They’re doing as good of a job as they can do with the resources they have.”
Ryan Osborne: 817-390-7684, @RyanOsborneFWST