Special interest? Count me in!
During city budget discussions, the topic of special interest groups often arises and the trend continues as we approach city budget hearings. What constitutes a “special interest?” Do Fire and Police fall under this dubious label? Pat Ronan, in a guest column in the Tribune on Oct. 18, suggests public safety is a “special interest.” Mr. Ronan laments public safety employees speaking to City Council about wage and staffing concerns. They “… stand before them and tell of the difficulty protecting and serving with their current salary package.” That is a spin and inaccurate portrayal of their actions. What they have done is highlight a public safety concern. The City Council is aware of the challenges in hiring police officers and I appreciate the council’s understanding and willingness to face this challenge.
As a city, we have struggled to attract and retain police officers for our community. Currently, we have five officer positions vacant, and one officer on long-term disability, which represent 19 percent of our officers. At present, we have detectives working uniformed patrol because we can’t hire officers. This adversely affects the Women’s Center detective, Traffic Officer and School Resource Officer positions; they too are tasked with working uniformed patrol to maintain minimum staffing. Our Narcotic Task Force staffing has been cut 50 percent to staff patrol; officers are working mandatory overtime regularly, often working five consecutive 12-hour shifts to maintain minimum staffing.
The men and women in public safety have done an extraordinary job the past year, struggling to balance their families with a challenging job that required many sacrifices of their personal time. Police officers are exhausted and frustrated with our inability to attract quality staff. Yes, they have vented to the City Council; does that diminish the message? No, these officers are very aware of the budget challenges. Their message and mine is that we must have the ability to recruit and retain high quality officers. If protecting the community makes us a “special interest,” we’re guilty. The special interest is public safety, first and foremost. Crime is bad for the whole community — the police department needs the ability to be proactive and not reactive to crime. Only by hiring the best, training them effectively and having sufficient staff to stay ahead of crime will we maintain the kind of community we want.
The market for police officers is highly competitive. If we don’t have a comparable salary and benefit package, officers will not accept employment here. Twice recently I have offered jobs to quality candidates, only to be told they decided on positions with higher-paying departments. The California Police Chiefs Association estimates there are 15,000 vacant officer positions state wide. The result — extreme competition for a small pool of candidates. The same problem exists in the private sector; we all know the challenges of finding quality employees. But when this happens in law enforcement, the consequences are predictable. Crime rates rise, arrest rates decline, DUI traffic accidents increase, gang activity increases and the community is less safe.
I’m often asked how many officers we have on patrol. Citizens generally believe there are between 10 to 20 officers on patrol during any given shift. The fact is we have four officers on patrol each shift, two officers on the west end of town and two on the east. Further, between 2 and 8 a.m. we often work with only three officers. Obviously, the department is 24/7 and our total number of officers is 31. Remember, six of those positions are vacant — 19 percent reduced manpower. In the 1980s, the police department had 39 police officers and handled approximately half the calls for service they handle now, which is about 26,000 events annually. This is an enormous volume of calls for service to be handled with only four officers per shift.
The men and women “in blue” care about the whole community, and yes, if that makes them a special interest, so be it. They protect and serve the community with honor and respect and don’t deserve to be political fodder in discussions regarding funding. I would invite Mr. Ronan to “ride along” with members of the police department to understand their challenges and maybe appreciate the great work they perform 24/7.
— Terry Daniels is chief of the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.