With Election Day just a few weeks away, the city's substandard public safety system, and the lack of funding for the agencies under that umbrella, has become a major flash point in the 2004 mayoral race. While all of the candidates agree that a problem exists, none seem quite certain how to solve it.
Last month Police Chief William Lansdowne presented the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee with a $64 million wish list and a warning that his department couldn't sustain its already inadequate personnel levels without a substantial increase in last year's $260 million operating budget. In addition to funding the first class of police cadets in more than a year and hiring scores of new civilian staff members, the items on the chief's list include new squad cars, two new helicopters, new mobile computer terminals and replacing outdated bulletproof vests.
While the chief says he doesn't expect to get everything he asked for, he points to double-digit increases in violent crimes, greater demand for police services and longer response times as evidence that the city needs to act quickly.
Currently, the city's ratio of officers to citizens languishes near 1.6-to-1,000, one of the lowest in California and the nation. The average national ratio for a similar sized city is 2.2 officers to 1,000 citizens. The department would need to hire more than 110 officers a year for the next six years just to maintain the current substandard ratio.
Experts warn the city's present officer-to-citizen ratio may even be an inflated figure, as it's based on 2000 census figures that don't consider population growth and military personnel, tourists and both illegal and legal immigrants who use police services.
"Nobody knows what that number really is," says Bill Farrar, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. "I think it is way down below 1.6."
In response to the shortage, Mayor Dick Murphy, county Supervisor Ron Roberts and Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis, all running for mayor, each says they support sending cadets to the Miramar College Police Academy in the coming year. The city can enroll several classes of approximately 50 cadets per class each year, but has not funded an academy class since 2003. Past classes have also been tough to fill, as San Diego has trouble competing for recruits with other better paying, less dangerous cities.
Late last week, in an apparent attempt to soften the blow of a forthcoming city manager's report, Mayor Murphy announced that the city would fund a 15-cadet class at the police academy this spring and hire five additional officers.
But, says Lansdowne, even if the city added twice that number of officers, it wouldn't solve his problems. He says it will take more than a year to fully train new cadets and, in the meantime, more than 150 city cops will retire or leave the department.
"If I hire them today, it will be 18 months before they are working by themselves in the field," he says. "I'd love to increase the number of sworn officers, but you can't keep adding officers without the civilian staff to support them. For every three officers that you add, you should add one civilian person."
Civilian personnel answer 911 calls, catalogue recovered property, prepare cases for trial and perform other administrative duties.
Although the chief says his first priority is to increase the number of personnel, his department has other weaknesses that need to be addressed. "You can't just add people-you need training, equipment and technology," he says. "It is more expansive than just adding people."
The chief says he believes it will ultimately take forward thinking to solve the police department's problems. While he is reluctant to criticize Murphy or comment on the other candidates, he did say that he is looking to the mayor's office, regardless of its future occupant, for help and leadership.
"We are working on a long-term plan to fix the deficiencies, understaffing and under budgeting of the police department," he says. "It can't be done in a year. It will take at least three years to rebuild the police department, and we need a five-year plan."
Maurice Luque, spokesman for the San Diego Fire Department, says his agency has filed a similar wish list with the same City Council committee. In addition to last year's $124 million operating budget, the department is asking for tens of millions of dollars to hire two additional battalion chiefs and dozens of firefighters, build 11 new stations and finance 11 new engines and three brush trucks, among other needs.
San Diego's firefighter-to-citizen ratio is currently .69-to-1,000, and experts say, like the police ratio, the figure is realistically much lower. Most other cities the size of San Diego have a 1-to-1,000 firefighter-to-citizen ratio.
"If we wanted to get up to the national average for cities our size, we would need to hire about 800 firefighters," says Luque. He adds that the department is also facing high levels of attrition but does have several funded training academy classes underway.
In response to the public safety crisis, City Manager Mike Uberuaga, at the behest of the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, has drafted a public safety needs assessment. The report is scheduled to be released this week.
The under-funding of San Diego's public safety agencies is not a new problem. Johnny Perkins, director of governmental affairs for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 145, the San Diego city firefighters union, says that the City Council has been complicating the situation with empty promises for more than a decade.
"This deficiency of resources wasn't done overnight or in the past four years," he says. "You have to look historically at San Diego over the last 10 or 15 or 20 years."
While Murphy is hoping a handful of new recruits will help alleviate the crisis, his opponents are quick to point fingers in his direction while scrambling to prove they, too, can solve the problem.
Unsurprisingly, both Roberts and Davis say they believe much of the blame for the funding shortfall rests with Murphy. They both say his opposition to the current proposed increase in the transit occupancy tax (TOT), which would provide an additional $26 million in revenue-of which a little less than half would be earmarked for the police and fire departments-is evidence of his inability to grasp the severity of the problem and act decisively. The public will have the opportunity to weigh in on the TOT increase (Proposition C) in the March 2 election.
"The priority has not been placed on funding police and fire services in San Diego," says Roberts. "If you shine a light on these things, you can make them move. Nobody has a bigger light than the mayor, but we have got a mayor who refuses to turn the light on."
While Murphy did not respond to CityBeat's interview requests, both Roberts and Davis, who say they believe public safety should be the city's No. 1 priority, explained a few similar approaches they would employ if elected. Both candidates say they would reconsider nonessential city expenses, namely the construction of the downtown library, until the city's financial situation improves. They also agree that a fully disclosed assessment of city finances needs to heppen before any action can be taken.
"A lot of the city's money is being prioritized for other things that the current mayor feels are important," says Roberts. "The first way to get out of a hole is to stop digging it."
"I'm not sure that those that lead the city really know," says Davis, "and I don't think they have shared with us how bad off we really are."
If elected, Roberts says he would also look into refinancing Petco Park and fire City Manager Uberuaga. His plans have earned him the endorsement of the San Diego Police Officers Association.
Davis shrugs off the union's endorsement of his rival and points to his own ideas to privatize Torrey Pines Golf Course and offer silent, second trust deeds to police officers and new recruits. The deeds would allow them to buy homes within city limits with financial help from the city. Davis says this would bring more police from rural areas into the community and allow the city to decrease the number of police substations, which he claims are expensive and inefficient.
"The benefit, of course, is instead of them spending hours on the roads [commuting to and from work], they would be in the neighborhoods," Davis says. "Their families and neighbors would be telling them about drug deals going down and other problems in the community."
While the candidates have plenty of suggestions, they still face the challenge of getting elected. Meanwhile, in the coming weeks Murphy is expected to propose more ideas to get a vastly unprepared and unprotected city back on track.
"There is no quick overnight fix," warns Chief Lansdowne. "It may get more difficult before it gets better."Even if Proposition C passes-the only immediate relief in sight-it will generate a mere fraction of the millions of dollars needed to bring San Diego's public safety agencies up to speed. Ultimately, it will provide only a few drops in a very old, leaky bucket.