There have been 14 robberies in Seal Beach so far this year.
Last year at this time, there had only been three.
“For a community our size to have 14 robberies is concerning,” Interim Police Chief Joe Miller said in an interview last week. “And I will tell you, the number one way to prevent robberies is by presence. Being seen throughout the community is a definite deterrent to those types of crimes.”
Now Chief Miller has a plan to increase the police presence in the city. He’s seeking to secure funding for two more officers and is due to go before City Council on Nov. 13 to ask for action. If the request is approved, it would bring the total number of funded officer positions on the force to 35.
Two residents spoke about their concerns about public safety before the city’s strategic planning retreat held at Old Ranch Country Club on Oct. 18. (For more information on the retreat, see page 30.) Resident Jim Brady described the lack of patrols in town and called the police department “woefully understaffed.” Miller echoed Brady’s concerns in an interview last Thursday in his push for a staff increase. “My biggest argument is [that] we used to have Main Street detail; we used to have beach patrol; we used to have bicycle units, we used to have [motorcycle officers].” He wants to bring that back. So how did the force get to this point?
Shrinking police force
Sgt. Michael Henderson and Chief Miller point to a number of factors behind the smaller police force. In the 1990s, the police department had between 44 and 46 officers, according to Chief Miller. The force shrank, in part, because of cost cutting during a tough time financially for the city and federal and state grants drying up, according to the department.
Today there are 33 funded full-time officer positions. There are 30 positions filled and the department is actively recruiting to fill the open spots. The department tweeted a recruitment flyer in August. Sgt. Henderson said he has been able to reduce the amount of time it takes to fill a position to as little as eight weeks but a quick hire is only possible if he has a viable candidate. Henderson said sometimes the search for qualified recruits takes months. The department is helped a great deal by its 40-50 police volunteers. Henderson says the police substation at the pier is 100-percent staffed with volunteers. “We could not open that station on a daily basis without our volunteers,” Henderson said.
Change in work load
Sgt. Henderson also said police officers are responding to more societal problems than in the past.
Homelessness is just one example. The department has two homeless liaison officers specifically trained to help meet the needs of homeless people. Henderson said the department is glad to help the community in this role but noted, “When a police officer starts to act in that capacity, they’re acting many times like a social worker and it’s time intensive. It can take hours and hours and hours to help connect a homeless person with resources. And that’s not traditionally been the law enforcement role but it is one we’ve adopted because it’s just come our way. That’s an increased demand on service.”
According to the police department there have been 1,459 crime reports so far this year. Thirty-eight percent of those crimes have been property crimes. A decreased police presence may partly explain the increase in crime, but Henderson also pointed to changes in California law as part of the problem.
In 2014, California voters approved Prop. 47, which downgraded some felony drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors. That means instead of being held in county jail on a felony charge, suspects are held on a misdemeanor charge and released with a citation to promise to appear in court. Prison realignment is also cited as a factor as the supervision of some felony offenders shifted from state prisons to county jails.
‘Passionate plea’ on how to pay for more police
Finance Director Victoria Beatley and Chief Miller are scheduled to present a staff report on the plan to hire two more officers at the Nov. 13 City Council meeting. Miller said he needs around $400,000 to staff the two additional officers in the first year. At the Oct. 18 retreat, Beatley presented a proposal on how to pay for the two officers: use money from the city’s $4.8 million pool fund and pay it back later. (The pool fund was originally $5 million but some of the money has been used to pay for studies on the pool project).
“I could figure out a way to do some sort of an advance from this pool designated fund into the police department and when new revenue sources come in, the first thing we would do is repay back the designated fund money that we used to fund those two officers,” Beatley said.
The pool fund money was designated to build a new aquatic facility either at the current pool location, J.H. McGaugh Elementary, or at the Naval Weapons Station. It’s been in the works for more than a decade. At the retreat, Recreation Manager Tim Kelsey admitted the project is years away from being completed and emphasized that the city has been working with the Naval Weapons Station but that their approval process was time consuming. Repairs and maintenance on the current pool at McGaugh have been paid for with money from the general fund, according to Kelsey.
Beatley added later, “So there’s a solution right now. It’s a source of money that’s been sitting there for years and we haven’t moved forward with and I would make a very definite passionate plea to this group to say let’s consider it and have a discussion about it because I think that’s the way we can accomplish what the public wants in the near term in a short period of time without having to worry about it.” Beatley recognized the importance of the pool fund as a “sacred cow” and promoted more discussion on the issue.
A few council members expressed reservations about tapping the pool fund and requested more information about the revenue sources for paying it back. Councilwoman Ellery Deaton said she liked the idea of it being an advance from the pool fund, but she was nervous about advancing on unknowns.
“I think we should be coming to a consensus about what are the available [revenue] sources to us so we know what we’re advancing on,” Deaton said. Councilman Mike Varipapa said, “In theory it sounds like a great idea, yeah, borrow from [the pool fund] and give it back, but who knows what’s going to happen in three years?”
Mayor Sandra Massa-Lavitt said, “We still have time to make a decision of where the remainder of the money is going to come from and how, if we use it for police, it will get paid back. But I do think the [funding] options are really important.”
Beatley said some of the revenue options that will likely be discussed to repay the pool fund are enacting a ballot measure, oil money, and parking meter money. But she cautioned that the only revenue source that can provide dollars to fund the extra officers in the short term is the pool fund. City Manager Jill Ingram said, “We’re giving you today what we’re suggesting as the best option we have given that public safety has become a high priority and knowing that we have the ability with our budget and what is set aside for a specific project to utilize that right now to address a serious concern.”
Miller said he prides himself on his budget and is always looking for funding options for his department, even searching other departments’ budgets for spare money. Miller recognized the importance of the pool project to the community but said, “My argument is public safety is today and the pool is two years from now.” Kelsey also said that the final cost for the pool project would likely exceed the original $5 million in the pool fund, a point that Chief Miller mentioned as more reason to fund the police officers now arguing that the pool fund will need to seek additional funding no matter what.
“It’s less likely the pool is going to happen than the issue associated with crime today,” Miller said.
Seeking more funding
Chief Miller is not stopping at seeking funding for only 35 officers. In January he is slated to present to council an organizational plan for the police department that will show what he sees as the department’s staffing needs. He says in his nearly 30 years with the department he can’t recall that an organizational plan has been completed.
In his plan he anticipates seeking to have 45-46 officers on the force for the city with a population of 24,168 people. If the chief succeeds that means there would be one officer for roughly every 537 residents in Seal Beach. By comparison, the city of Laguna Beach, with a population of 23,000 and 52 sworn officers, has about one officer for every 442 people.