If you’ve ever thought that Durango seems to have a lot of police officers around, that’s because it does.
The Durango Police Department has more police officers per capita than average cities in Colorado, according to 2010 FBI statistics, the most recent available. But police and city officials defended the high staffing levels, pointing to the surge in population that occurs during the day with commuters and especially during the summer with tourists.
Here’s how it breaks down:
The department has 3.2 officers per 1,000 residents, compared with an average of 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents in other cities across the state, statistics show.
Factoring in daytime population – about 26,700, according to the Census – the Durango Police Department has 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents – more in line with the state average.
Jim Spratlen, chief of the Durango Police Department, said the department adjusts staffing levels based on call volume and the time of day, but it can’t grow and shrink in size based on summer and winter tourism trends or if Fort Lewis College is in session, Spratlen said.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc said the Durango Police Department provides specialized services that most police departments its size don’t. This includes a fraud investigation unit, bike patrol and school-resource officers.
LeBlanc said tourists aren’t known for breaking the law, but they do come here to party and let loose. Durango also is a college town, which means there is a bulge in the population of 18- to 22-year-olds.
Durango also is at the crossroads of two major highways, which means it receives a lot of cross-country travel that raises the potential for accidents and traffic congestion, LeBlanc said.
“There are some very logical and legitimate reasons for the city’s police department size,” LeBlanc said.
These include the 195 special events Durango hosts each year, and many require extra police presence, including the Snowdown parade, which attracts thousands of spectators – more than the population of Bayfield.
“There’s a lot of stuff that happens on Main, and every one of those things requires some planning with public safety and traffic control,” LeBlanc said. “We like to have visibility on Main to keep things orderly and safe.”
Comparing Durango’s police per capita with other cities can be misleading given the city’s small size, Spratlen said. Slight changes in workforce numbers – for example, if two officers quit at the same time – can dramatically affect percentages, he said. That is less so with larger departments.
“Stats sometimes skew what is really out there,” Spratlen said.
Here’s how police departments in Bayfield and Ignacio compare in size:
Bayfield, population 2,100, has 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, slightly more than the state average of 1.9.
Ignacio, population 781, has the highest officer-to-citizen rate with 7.7 officers per 1,000 residents.
The department has only six officers, but one is a reserve officer and another is assigned full-time to the Southwest Drug Task Force, said Chief Kirk Phillips with the Ignacio Police Department.
The department is not staffed 24 hours a day, he said; rather, officers remain on call if needed.
“It may look like we have a bunch, but one of them is dedicated solely to the task force,” he said.
Calculated with only four officers dedicated to patrol, Ignacio would have 5.1 officers per 1,000 residents.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has 1.9 deputies per 1,000 residents. The average among sheriff offices statewide is 1.6 deputies per 1,000 residents.
The Durango Police Department maintains a minimum of four officers on duty per shift. But it beefs up patrols during high-impact nights.
“Friday and Saturday nights are going to be busy nights because it’s the end of the week and people are going out doing their thing,” said Sgt. Jeremiah Lee, a shift supervisor with the Durango Police Department. “On the other hand, you can’t foresee everything because every day is unique.”
Lee said the department needs more officers, not fewer. If multiple officers are sick, on vacation or on leave, it creates scheduling conflicts.
“There are days that we’re strapped to the hilt,” he said.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Durango police Chief Jim Spratlen’s name.
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald