Story by Nick Blumberg

PHOTO: AZPM Staff
Tucson Police Department sergeant in a traffic stop.

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The Arizona Department of Public Safety was hit hard by staffing cuts during the recession. As the agency increases staff again, some say it can’t hire quickly enough to make up for the losses and upcoming retirements.

Officer Estevan Roman has been with DPS for nine years. While patrolling the Southbound 51 earlier this week, he stopped a driver going 80 miles an hour.

Roman got back in his car to run the guy’s driver's license. Turned out, he had an outstanding warrant in Yavapai County for an earlier traffic violation he didn’t take care of.

“Charles 129, it appears it’s going to be extraditable within Yavapai County only," Roman said.

It wasn't serious enough of a crime to arrest him, so Roman let the driver off with a written warning.

“Where’s my nearest backup, if this guy -- you see how big he is -- wanted to put up a fight, he didn’t want to go to jail if it was extraditable. It’d be nice if you had another person in the area to help you out," he added.

Roman said, at any given time, there are only a handful of other highway patrol officers working, and if there’s a huge pileup or someone threatening suicide that shuts down a freeway, they might all be occupied on a single call. The staffing shortage has been a problem for years. During the recession...

“We had, like we always do, a fair amount of retirements. But unlike now, we could not hire anybody to replace them," Roman said.

Bart Graves, a DPS spokesman, said when state revenue bottomed out, DPS went through four years with no academies, meaning no new officers to replace people who moved up or retired.

“We still have a little over 100 sworn vacancies statewide. It’s much better than it was during the height of the recession when we were well over 200, approaching 300 officers down. We have 41 cadets in the academy right now in various stages of the academy, that’s a good thing for us," Graves said.

The staffing gaps are felt most acutely in rural areas, especially in Coconino and Cochise counties. And even now that DPS is hiring, “The agency is aware of at least 100, I think just over 100 officers that will be retiring between now and the end of 2016," said Jimmy Chavez, president of the Arizona Highway Patrol Association.

He said he was grateful that the state Legislature partially reversed earlier DPS pay cuts, which he said is a factor in recruiting new officers. But Chavez is still looking for support from lawmakers who control the agency’s budget for a fully staffed agency, and things like...

“...getting our fleet back up to where it needs to be, but all around I think the department has been impacted so significantly with the economic downturn that we’ve just gone through that it’s going to take some bold moves by legislative leaders to really turn things around," he said.

Graves said it’s not just legislators that can make life easier for Highway Patrol.

“Well, it would help if people drive better. Then we wouldn’t be as busy as we are. Right now our officers, say, here in the Phoenix metro area literally are going from call to call to call to call," he said.