'Third option' proposed for Del Mar law enforcement

Community service officers could provide a “middle option” for Del Mar, which has been trying for years to decide whether to continue its contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department or create its own police department.

Del Mar has been studying the possibility of creating its own police force as a way to improve response times, cut costs and have more control over law enforcement and crime prevention.

The newest possibility is that the Sheriff’s Department could assign community service officers to the city, Mayor Dwight Worden said Monday, Dec. 18. The non-sworn officers could do low-level investigations, assist with traffic control, and work on crime prevention in the community, leaving sworn deputies to more important tasks.

“We’ve had two options” until now, Worden said at a council meeting Dec. 18. “The solution might be in the middle.”

The council directed members Terry Sinnott and Ellie Haviland to meet with the Sheriff’s Department to discuss whether community service officers could be assigned to Del Mar and what that might cost, along with other ways to improve service.

Del Mar is the smallest city in San Diego County, with a little more than 4,200 residents. It is one of nine cities in the county that contract with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services.

Residents say that under the city’s current contract, deputies must split their time between Del Mar and the county and other cities, and that deputies spend too little time in Del Mar before they are transferred to work full-time elsewhere.

“We always need officers on the beach,” said resident Antony Viscardi. “We need officers who can respond quickly to what’s going on.”

Response times for deputies range from an average of nine minutes for high-priority calls to more than 47 minutes for low-priority calls, according to a city report completed in March and based on information from 2014.

Some people have suggested the city try to get the high-priority responses lowered to between five and eight minutes. Councilman Terry Sinnott said that’s not reasonable.

“I wouldn’t focus on the numbers,” Sinnott said. “I just want to improve public safety.”

The city’s Finance Committee recently evaluated the Sheriff’s Department contract, which costs the city about $2.1 million annually, and concluded, “We weren’t really getting what we were paying for,” said committee member Glenn Sherman. The committee members voted unanimously to recommend the city form its own police department.

Other residents advised caution, saying a police department would expose the city to new liabilities that are now handled by the Sheriff’s Department, such as lawsuits for police brutality or officer-involved shootings.

Other concerns include where the department would be housed, and capital costs for vehicles, communications systems and other initial expenses.

-- Phil Diehl is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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