COSTA MESA — Restructuring the Police Department to reduce costs could put the city at risk for more crime and mean fewer officers dedicated to traffic enforcement, narcotics operations and other specialties, the police chief warned.
However, some city officials — now tasked with finding ways to shore up the budget — said there may be little choice but to follow at least some of the city consultant's recommendations to restructure the force. Such reorganization, the consultant claims, would save $1.3 million the first year and $1.8 million annually afterward.
The suggested changes advised by Management Partners Inc. include eliminating three officers, removing a lieutenant position — thus bringing the lieutenant positions down from eight to five — and keeping a police captain position vacant until Sept. 30 to save on wages.
The City Council plans to discuss the changes at Tuesday's meeting as it considers approving the city's fiscal year 2011-12 budget.
Also at issue is a proposal to reduce the Police Department from 139 active sworn officers to 131. But a force that size, interim Police Chief Steve Staveley said, may mean as few as 120 available officers because of illness, injuries and vacation.
"At any given time you can take 10 or 12 … off (those who are) actually available for deployment," Staveley said.
In addition, five of the positions would be somewhat less permanent, meaning they would be funded by a federal COPS grant that would pay their salaries for only three years.
Staveley believes the reductions would mean more officers doing generalized police work and having less time for specialist work in traffic, gangs and narcotics.
According to a May memo Staveley sent to the council, in California among 56 cities of similar size Costa Mesa ranks second in fatal collisions each year, sixth in drunk-driving related collisions and first in accidents happening between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Armed with those statistics, Staveley said fewer officers could lead to even more speeding and accidents.
City CEO Tom Hatch acknowledged that changes to the police force would affect services and that he felt the city has done what it can to maintain service levels.
"The reality is, when you're changing sworn to non-sworn, there is a decline," Hatch said.
Staveley said replacing sworn officers with non-sworn professionals is a common trend in law enforcement across the country. To explain the scenario Staveley used a medical field simile: the relationship between the sworn officers and the non-sworn is like that of expert surgeons and their supportive, professional staff.
A common model is 50 non-sworn for every 100 sworn officers, Staveley said, adding that the city of Redlands has 1.25 professional staffers to every officer.
The Costa Mesa Police Department, for every 100 sworn officers, has about 38 non-sworn personnel.
An International Assn. of Chiefs of Police report — presented Tuesday by Jason Chamness, president of the Costa Mesa Police Assn. — gave an average ratio of 1.9 officers for every 1,000 people in similarly sized American cities. Costa Mesa's current 1.3 ratio would be reduced to 1.2 if the suggested cuts were implemented.
Chamness said the changes are "not based on logic or any expertise I've found. This is based on politics — not public safety, not people."
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said that politics are irrelevant and that balancing the city budget is of utmost importance.
"All the studies in the world don't put more cash in our bank account," he told Chamness. "So what is this based on? It's based on numbers."
Management Partners cautioned against using ratios or formulas to determine appropriate levels of police staffing.
How police staff the middle and high schools of Costa Mesa is also at issue, though there is some disagreement about the proposals floating around. Increases in the allocation for reserve officers, changing school resource officers to three non-sworn professional positions, and increases in the volunteer program were among changes suggested by Management Partners.
Councilman Steve Mensinger said Friday that the city wants to help shore up officer presence on the campuses with sworn reserve officers who are mainly retired cops working part-time. He also said an earlier report in the Daily Pilot saying the city recommended using non-sworn officers at the schools was inaccurate.
There are no plans, on the city side of the conversation, to reduce the number of officers at schools, he added. At Tuesday's meeting, Staveley said that for a city of its size, Costa Mesa should have six school resource officers.
Newport-Mesa Unified school board Trustee Katrina Foley said she is concerned about talk of switching from two sworn officers at the high schools to three non-sworn professionals.
"Any critical incident on campus including school shootings have made it nearly mandatory for an armed officer to be available in case of an immediate emergency," Foley wrote in an e-mail. "Part-time officers do not provide the stability and consistency that children need when forming human bonds and relationships. The (school resource officer) is one of the most important preventative positions in a police department."