As San Jose’s neighborhoods endure a spike of homicides, the calls come from all corners for more patrol officers to restore the police department’s depleted ranks. Last week, Chief Chris Moore appropriately responded to the upsurge of violence by committing additional overtime patrol and shifting officers from investigative units to “all gangs all the time.”
Budgetary shortfalls and overworked officers limit the chief’s ability to offer much more than short-term fixes, however. The Mercury News’ account of the departure of former San Jose Police Sgt. Jincy Pace illustrates the painful choices ahead, as tight budgets afford little room for salary increases to prevent the loss of additional officers.
Longer-term solutions require each of us — on all sides of the debate — to acknowledge what we’d prefer not to hear.
Fiscal reform advocates can start by acknowledging that while our actions have avoided hundreds of police layoffs, they have come at a cost. Dozens of officers have fled SJPD’s ranks for better-paying cities, and dozens more have retired. In the most thinly staffed department of any large U.S. city, we have lost officers at a higher rate than we can hire qualified replacements.
Even those recruits may not stay in San Jose for long. Officers who have already seen paychecks shrink by as much as 14 percent will lose the equivalent of another 4 percent with rising retirement contributions next year. Unless we soften the blow in the upcoming contract negotiations, the exodus will continue, leaving San Jose bearing the cost of training officers who will spend their best years serving other cities.
We must continue to curb rising costs for pensions, retiree health care and sick leave payouts to restore hiring and yes, salaries. Yet no matter how successful, those cost reductions will not generate sufficiently immediate savings to restore public safety services to an acceptable level. We will need even more severe cuts in other city services, or else more “revenues” — political code for tax increases.
Yet union leaders must admit that for residents and businesses to support either option, we must put an end to six-figure sick leave payouts, and we must reach final resolution of retirement benefit reforms. No taxpayer wants to pay more without some assurance that their investment will put more officers on the beat.
Union leaders also must acknowledge that we could better utilize the officers we have by implementing changes to which they’ve long objected. By using retired officers to conduct background checks of new hires, 17 sworn officers can return to patrol. Strategically deploying our 100 reserve officers to assist units like traffic enforcement can free officers for more rigorous assignments. Extending patrol shifts beyond the current six-month rotations can enable officers to better develop relationships within neighborhoods and improve responsiveness.
None of us want to hear that we need to ask for help. We do. In the downtown, several partners have stepped forward in response to our pleas. The San Jose Downtown Association has elicited funding from property owners to pay for additional patrol. The Valley Transportation Authority committed to increase the presence of sheriffs’ deputies along the transit mall in September and to use federal funds to install additional cameras. Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith and Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell have offered to help with “hot spot” sweeps. District Attorney Jeff Rosen has restored the community prosecution office to target owners unwilling to curb drug, gang, and prostitution activity on their properties. We’ll need all these efforts and more — particularly from our community partners in education, gang prevention, and domestic violence — to make real progress.
My years as a criminal prosecutor have taught me we shouldn’t trust any “simple” solutions to crime. But with an honest dialogue about our shared problems and options, I like our chances.
This piece was published as an op-ed in the August 28, 2012 Mercury News, under my name.