Del Mar council considers law enforcement options

With some in the community still unsatisfied with the services the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department provides Del Mar, the City Council is once again considering whether to supplement the services or create a standalone police department.

The city began exploring its law enforcement options more than three years ago when residents raised concerns over the cost of services, the lack of police presence in the community, and the slow response to low-priority calls.

A consultant team hired in 2013 to review the city’s contract, compare the city’s law enforcement costs to other cities, and evaluate other law enforcement alternatives provided updated costs and options at the April 18 council meeting.

Since its incorporation in 1959, the city has contracted with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services. In 2013, when the consultants were initially hired, Del Mar paid more than $1.7 million for services. Today, the city pays more than $2.1 million for its contract, which increases by about $100,000 every year.

The city currently contracts with the Sheriff’s Department for a total of 5.32 deputy sheriffs for 24-hour coverage. Under the existing contract, the department also provides 1.26 deputy sheriffs, or 42.5 hours, for traffic enforcement and a full-time detective who splits his time between investigating crimes that occur in the city, issuing citations and managing the RedFlex red-light enforcement program.

“For a city the size of Del Mar, you actually have a pretty robust enforcement situation right now,” said Jim Armstrong of Ralph Andersen & Associates. A retired city manager of Santa Barbara, Armstrong noted he has 37 years of local government experience, including 29 years as a city manager in three California cities.

Additionally, Del Mar has three full-time and three part-time parking enforcement officers, a full-time code enforcement officer, a full-time sworn park ranger, and four full-time and 55 part-time lifeguards.

From a standalone department to supplemental services, the consultants presented a variety of law enforcement options.

The annual net cost to operate a standalone police department is estimated at almost $2.4 million. The start-up costs total an additional $1.2 million, plus another $2.2 million to $3.2 million to design and construct a police station.

The costs would cover 20 positions, including a police chief, a police commander, four police sergeants, five patrol officers, a traffic officer, an administrative assistant, two part-time detectives and five part-time reserve officers. At least two officers would be on shift at any given time.

Among the other law enforcement options presented, the city could add a full-time community service officer, or CSO, which would cost $83,777 a year.

The officer would be able to get to know community members, enforce municipal code violations and work alongside parking enforcement officers. Designating all parking enforcement officers as CSOs would create a much greater presence in the city, said Greg Nelson of Ralph Andersen & Associates.

A CSO, however, cannot respond to low-priority three and four calls since they are not armed and cannot be dispatched by the Sheriff’s Department.

“You don’t want a citizen thinking they’re dealing with a police officer when they are not,” explained Nelson, a recently retired chief of police of Pekin, Illinois, with 20 years of law enforcement experience. That’s why the consultants suggested the CSO have a distinctive uniform, bicycle and vehicle.

The most common types of these calls include responding to a residential or auto burglary after the incident has occurred, petty thefts and vandalism, as well as responding to reports of loud parties, according to the report compiled by the consultant team. The report states that slow response to excessive noise complaints was the biggest concern expressed to the consultants.

According to data from the Sheriff’s Department, for the first nine months of 2014, the median response times to priority three calls (minor accident, reckless driving, DUI, among others) was 14 minutes, with an average of 15.4 minutes. For priority four calls (loud parties, prowlers, fires, assaults, burglaries, among others), the median response time was 29.4 minutes, with an average of 45 minutes.

Del Mar could hire two part-time CSOs, which would cost $64,124 a year — saving the city nearly $20,000 — and provide more flexibility, but it could also result in greater turnover and training periods.

“The disadvantages with any part-time employee is you’re going to have more turnover,” Nelson said. “People are going to move on. They’re going to seek better employment and better pay and benefits.”

Other options included supplementing the existing operations with hourly support or augmenting the sheriff’s contract with private security services.

Using private security services would cost about $90,000. Officers could issue parking tickets and enforce selected minor municipal code violations if authorized by the council, but again, they could not respond to low-priority calls.

A final option would be to enhance law enforcement operations by adding a CSO through the existing contract with the Sheriff’s Department, which would cost about $121,000 annually.

Sheriff’s Department CSOs offer many services that are currently being provided by both deputies and the park ranger. Although non-sworn and unarmed, they can also handle many low-priority calls, non-injury traffic crashes and traffic direction, and enforce parking and

municipal code violations. The CSO could also be based in Del Mar, creating a visible presence in the community.

CSOs, however, are not able to respond to low-priority calls where a suspect or violator may be present, but those types of calls are rare in Del Mar, according to the report.

If Del Mar’s highest priority is to reduce response time for priority three and four calls, the consultants recommended that the city increase services from the Sheriff’s Department through additional deputy hours, which the city is currently doing, or add a new CSO to its contract with the department.

“If that’s your primary objective by enhancing the services, you really need to go through the Sheriff’s office either with a community service officer or additional overtime hours,” Armstrong said.

If Del Mar’s highest priority is to increase patrol visibility and a sense of safety in the community, the consultants recommended that the city hire two or more part-time CSOs. If Del Mar moves forward with this option, the consultants also recommended that the city consider reclassifying all parking enforcement officers as CSOs.

With separate recommendations that only partially addressed the community’s concerns, Councilman Al Corti asked the consultants what the best alternative would be if he wanted to increase visibility in the community, increase response times and have additional traffic enforcement. The consultants said the best solution would be to hire a CSO and also invest in additional overtime hours, unless Del Mar decides to move forward with a standalone police department.

“The response times to the priority three and four calls are not out of line for other urban areas, but many small communities with their own agencies enjoy much better response times, and that’s really what the staffing model we presented to you would also provide,” Nelson said. “Also, you get an additional level of control. They’re your employees. You set your policies. Communities really handle their police departments in different ways.”

The city’s Finance Committee, which initially recommended the city look at law enforcement alternatives, plans to further evaluate the report and to return to council in about a month with recommendations.

“I think the Finance Committee will be coming forward with some more specific recommendations, so this report is for us to digest and to hear from,” said Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott, who serves as a liaison to the Finance Committee. “I think it will boil down to a decision around service. Service level is a big deal from my perspective.”