The Durango police station was never designed for law enforcement.
The East Second Avenue building, operated by Miller-Garmen Motors until 1961, was purchased by the city for $100,000 to house its emergency services. While the department has operated out of the building since 1962, it has more than reached its capacity, said Police Chief Kamran Afzal, who started working for the department two years ago.
Many offices being used by officers used to be closets. The hallways are cramped and narrow. There’s no private place for officers to meet with victims.
“We really can’t do anything at all unless we magically grow the building,” Afzal said.
While there’s no magic that will solve the department’s problem, the city has come up with a more practical solution: raise taxes to pay for a new building. City councilors have proposed an increase in property taxes and sales tax, in part, to fund a $19 million new headquarters for the police department.
City officials say the tax increases – an additional 5.4 mills for property tax and another 0.55 percent in sales tax – would also help the city overcome budget deficits, fix roads and gutters, and remodel other government buildings. The proposed tax increase would give the city an additional $7.5 million in revenue in 2019; the police station would cost about $2 million annually for about 10 years, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.
The problem the police department is facing is not just that there isn’t enough room for existing officers, but there isn’t space for the eight additional hires Afzal says he needs. That need is based on an increase in calls for service, a metric the department uses to determine its workload and whether it has enough officers to serve the community.
The police department has handled 11,873 calls for service as of mid-September. Last year, it had 17,177 calls. The year before that – 15,442 calls.
“We need more police officers,” said Mayor Sweetie Marbury. “We want more visibility on the Animas River Trail and downtown.”
That need also stems from the department’s culture shift from what Afzal calls an “us versus them” mentality to an “us serving them” focus. It’s called community policing, he said, and it is something that he has been implementing since he arrived at the department in 2016 – an effort Afzal hopes will humanize his officers.
City Councilor Dick White said the goal of hiring a new police chief two years ago was to “see someone increasing that level of engagement with the community.”
But the police station is not conducive to an efficient work environment, making it challenging for officers to fully implement their new approach.
“It’s dysfunctional,” Afzal said. “But we make it work because that’s what you have to do.”
Tight confinesThe police department is housed in a 15,000-square-foot building. With 66 employees in the department, that leaves about 227 square feet per person. What the department needs, Afzal said, is more than double what it has now: 45,000 square feet, or 681 square feet per person.
With such a small space, the department has been forced to use every nook and cranny of the building. “We’ve made offices out of closets,” Afzal said.
Bosses are separated from subordinates by a maze of hallways wide enough to fit only two people shoulder-to-shoulder, meaning officers usually turn sideways to walk past one another in the halls. Afzal said the layout of the department, which puts his office in a far-flung corner of the building, prevents him from interacting with his staff.
Some offices are accessible only by walking through another. Many don’t have windows or are awkward in shape because of the design of the building.
And storage space is at a premium. “On the back side of policing, there’s a lot of storage need,” Afzal said.
The evidence locker at the police station looks like what it used to be – an automotive parts room – and is about half the size of what the department needs. When police officers confiscate guns, drugs or money, it is all stored in a vault that is typically in one location. But the Durango Police Department has vaults scattered around its evidence room.
“No amount of redesigning will overcome the space issue,” Afzal said.
New digsThe city has yet to decide where it will build a new police station and what it may look like – those things will come if the tax increase is approved. LeBlanc said he has some ideas of what it needs; it’s easy to have a wish list when there are so many things wrong with the current building, he said.
Secure parking is one of those wants. Both police vehicles and officers’ personal vehicles have been vandalized while parked on East Second Avenue or adjacent streets. A new police station with secure parking would mitigate the problem and free up parking in the downtown district for residents and visitors.
The new station would have a more modern layout, including training areas in a more quiet part of the building and designated juvenile detention rooms.
Detective offices now are not conducive to contemporary police work, Afzal said. The quarters are cramped, detectives have almost no space to collaborate – an important facet of their work – and some officers have personally remodeled their offices to create more space.
A new detective quarters would have a more open floor plan designed to facilitate collaboration between detectives, LeBlanc said.
The locker rooms in the current police headquarters are too small to fit all the equipment that officers carry. Officers often have to carry their gear home with them or dry their uniforms on hooks on lockers. And the women’s locker room is far too small, especially for a department that wants to increase its gender diversity, Afzal said.
Bigger locker rooms give officers a greater sense of safety, so it is a high priority for the new building, Afzal said.
There’s also the fitness room: Officers now have old, donated equipment in a small, windowless space. One of the most important parts of police work is staying physically fit, and it is an activity Afzal said he wants officers to feel comfortable doing at the station.
A new station would not have to be located downtown like a fire station because unlike firefighters who respond from a centralized location, officers often patrol remotely.
Even if the city knew where it wanted to build a police station, it is unlikely officials would announce the location before funding is secure because the last time it released a location for a proposed land acquisition, property values went up, LeBlanc said.
Regardless of where the new headquarters might be, Afzal said a new building is crucial to the department’s success.
“The new facility would be built to address future needs,” Afzal said.