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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Commentary: Report Demonstrates Need for Public Safety Priority in City

It has become commonplace within this community to assume that I am against law enforcement because of my proactiveness on the issue of police oversight. I also believe in oversight for all aspects of professional life whether it be medical, legal, or safety standards. I simply believe that oversight is always needed as a protection to the public--regardless of the industry. It is not anti-contractor to have building inspectors. It is simply a recognition that a few bad contractors can ruin it for the thousands of good contractors.

In any case, a number of councilmembers have staked their name as being staunch defenders of law enforcement mainly because they were viewed in opposition of efforts to create civilian review of police operations.

However, in my view it is not simply enough to oppose oversight in order to be pro-law enforcement. Looking at city budget priorities that have been largely put into place by this current council majority, I have to question why anyone would consider them (the council majority) pro-law enforcement.

This is largely made clear, at least in my opinion, in a staff report that will come before the city council this evening.

What is clear from the staff report that we will examine in more detail shortly is that the city lacks the money at present to make the upgrades that we need to protect our citizens in the form of public safety.

The city faces serious budget constraints at present. And more importantly it faces serious budget inflexibility in the future.

As we discussed in March, city practices implemented repeatedly by this council majority have served to hamstring the budget process. Current policy has created a situation where a retired employee needs to have worked only five years with the city in order to receive medical benefits for life after retirement. Current policy has created a stratospheric rise in salaries and benefits--not for the rank and file employee but for upper management.

The result of this practice is not only are we paying a tremendous amount of the city's current budget to upper management, but we have produced a system whereby we are funding people long after they have left the system and we have done so for people who have not been longtime employees necessarily.

No only are we paying a large percentage of our budget to this now, but we will pay ever more in the future. We will have locked a large percentage of our budget away for entitlements and we will not have the budgetary flexibility to meet the needs of a growing and vital community especially in terms of public safety. We simply cannot continue down this path is we want a safe community.

Thus the staff is recommending three phases based on available budget. First, a phase based on changes that can be implemented immediately with minimal additional costs. Second, they would look toward flexibility and reallocation of money. Third, they would look toward new incoming revenue streams such as the Target store.

Our public safety is going to rely on the revenue stream from Target--which may or may not ever come to Davis and from which budgetary estimates are shaky at best?

What the report does not suggest is that many of these concerns could have been handled had the city looked at their budget a few years ago and done a better job of prioritizing their concerns. The bottom line here is that the city will find a way most likely to get the public safety the people need, but the people are going to have to pay for it and the citizens at some point should ask why.

The staff report argues:
"Simply adding “officers to the streets” will not address the overall needs of the Police Department in the long run. On the contrary, unless a sound management and oversight structure is in place first, the addition of officers may not meet community expectations for the type of service that the Department should provide. Furthermore, the addition of officers must be implemented strategically, with an eye on those community expectations and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the Department."
This is an interesting finding. As the Ombudsman, Bob Aaronson, suggested in his report back in February, there at that time criticized the leadership, management and supervision within the department. With the arrival of new police Chief Landy Black, there is reasonable hope that that situation will improve.

However, I would also suggest based on my experience on a ride-along, conversations with members of the business community, and conversations with the public as a whole, that we do need to add more officers to the streets. Much of the time, the current level of patrol is sufficient to cover the city, but it is not sufficient to have a real presence in key parts of the city. Nor is it sufficient to cover the city when a major incident occurs. For example, I watched what happened when there was a simple fight at an apartment complex that led to an injury. Most of their manpower was at the scene of this incident--which meant during a prime time for parties and mayhem, there were not officers on the street that could handle party calls. There were not officers patrolling the street.

So while I agree that "simply" adding "officers to the streets" will not solve the problems, they will go a long way toward helping resolve some of the issues that this community has.

The report further states,
"there is no one response time standard in law enforcement. Police response times vary greatly depending on the type and priority of call received."
I agree. But where questions arise is why it takes a certain length of time to respond to what could potentially be serious calls downtown during key times. There was a broad daylight bank robbery where response time was questioned. I saw an incident personally where a fight could have been dangerous to the public at a popular Davis restaurant and it took the police over ten minutes to arrive.

We recognize that there are different priorities for different situations. No one is overly concerned if it takes the police half an hour to take down a report, but if there is a potentially dangerous situation, it is obvious to this layman that we need the manpower and flexibility to respond rapidly to such situations. And during downtimes, we could use the police presence in key areas to both deter troublemakers as well as foster relations with specific communities and neighborhoods.

Unfortunately none of this will happen unless the city can get control over the budget situation. And right now, they have not.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting