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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Commentary: Why I believe We Need More Officers

On Tuesday night, it was late into the evening, rapidly approaching the midnight hour. I stepped up the microphone to speak at public comment immediately after Davis Police Sergeant Rod Rifredi. I can only imagine what was going through the minds of the many police officers that were in attendance that night. However and perhaps surprisingly to the DPD officials who were there, I spoke of the need to hire six new police officers in the near future. In fact, I told the council that I "agreed with the DPOA and Mr. Rifredi."

As this blog has progressed, I have spoken less and less during public comment. For one thing, I feel I can speak better through the blog. For another, I sometimes get the distinct impression I make things more likely to fail than pass. But this was different, this issue. The issue of police staffing and public safety perhaps make my perspective more rather than less important. I am fully aware of the past and the perceptions in the community and most particularly in the police department about me.

On the other hand, I think some of those perceptions are wrong. Few in Davis are aware than in San Luis Obispo I was a close ally of the police chief. But last year the issue of police oversight for whatever reason became so polarizing that it became the defining moment for many about me, whom people had never met for the most part and knew even less about my background and most of my beliefs.

I flash forward to the current discussion at hand, but I believe that the past is paramount to understanding the future. Why was I so moved to advocate for adequate staffing of police officers? I believe such staffing is part and parcel toward fostering improved trust between the department and the community. For many, the police are strangers in this community, many of whom do not live here and merely move through town, driving around in their cars. Some of that has changed with the hiring of Landy Black as police chief. But I believe we need to move closer toward a model of community policing, where the police are part of the community in which they serve. The only way that can happen is that we have enough officers on duty to put some on foot patrol. To put some into various communities where they can work with the neighborhoods and the citizens.

This is also a political issue and it begins with city budget problems. I could see a sense of frustration on the faces of the officers as they recited past promises that a new officer each year would be hired and complained that this commitment fell by the wayside. I saw the frustration as the city council spoke of budget constraints and lack of resources, even as they have in the past put into place budgetary considerations that have served to hamstring the budget and put such changes out of reach.

A serious crisis looms for the city that has made financial commitments that will induce structural budget problems. The policy of five year employment leading to lifetime pensions is not sustainable. The rapidly escalating salaries of top end officials adds to this problem.

Councilmember Stephen Souza spoke in terms of three main areas for expenditure and played parks and recreation off police and fire in a budgetary tug-of-war.

However at the same time, he presented us with a false dichotomy. The city is prepared to spend hundreds of millions on the combination of a wastewater treatment plant that will be simultaneously upgraded with a new water supply delivery system.

When confronted on this issue Councilmember Souza suggested that money came from a different fund than public safety money. While technically correct, in practice it comes from the same place--the city resident. The money comes from them whether it takes the form of a rate increase or the form of a new tax.

The city is increasingly going to rely on taxation as a means to raise revenue because they have not controlled their spending in recent years. What that means is that the public is in the unenviable task of choosing between parks, police, fire, or water. Unfortunately, the decision on parks has already been chosen. The voters voted for Measure G last year.

Now I am not against parks, no one is. But we have to ask ourselves if that was the most pressing need that needed to be addressed with a tax increase or reauthorization. The problem is that the citizens chose between parks or less parks on their ballot. But the real choice down the line is a prioritization between parks, public safety, and water. And the public never had this laid out to them last year. They only had a simply choice. But at some point, as we face a parcel tax increase schools and one for the library (both of which are desperately needed and I wholly support), we have to lay all and not just some of the options on the table. Because at some point, the public is going to revolt over taxes. They are going to revolt over paying more and more to city government when a lot of the current spending has been squandered. And at the end of the day, they are never going to choose which things are priorities and which or not. They will simply be faced with a terrible dilemma--do I increase my taxes even more or do I cut vital city financed services.

Unfortunately, what our city council is doing forestalling that decision date. They are punting. They are putting the ball into the hands of a future council to make the tough decision as three of them are facing reelection in less than a year, and two of them--Souza and Saylor--have never met a program or budgetary increase that they do not support. But at some point, it will come to the point where it is too much to take and we really will face a crisis.

In the meantime, we need more police officers on the street. We need to insure the safety of the community and help to restore the vital trust between the police and certain communities, and that begins by our city giving the police the tools that they need to do the job they were hired and we trust them to do.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting