Del Mar to develop plan for standalone police department

The city of Del Mar could eventually have its own police department.

The Del Mar City Council agreed on May 16 to develop a plan to build a standalone police department. Since its incorporation in 1959, the city has contracted with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services.

“This is really all about changing the bar on what we expect in Del Mar for service,” said Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott, who added that the city needs to think about today, but also prepare for the future and the growing number of visitors that are coming to the coastal community.

“Given the money we’re spending, we are thinking about getting a better level of service,” he added. “We’ve done that with our lifeguard, we’ve done that with our firefighters, we’ve done that with our ranger. We have expected and we have achieved, I think, for a small community, a good level of service. But what the Sheriff is able to do under the contract is a type of service that isn’t fitting.”

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 the April meeting, the Sheriff’s Subcommittee, an offshoot of the city’s Finance Committee, has reached out to other city committees for community reaction and feedback to the possibility of forming a police department.

“The reaction overall has been very favorable and encouraging,” said Barry Entous, a member of the subcommittee.

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.

In 2013, when the consultants, Ralph Andersen & Associates, 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.

An independent police department would cost a little more than $2.26 million annually, according to the study. Startup costs would total about $1.2 million for vehicles and other equipment. Costs would also cover recruiting and training staff — 15 full-time and four part-time employees.

“This is the biggest decision we’ve made in 50 years here, and you guys have worked so hard,” Mayor Sherryl Parks said to members of the subcommittee prior to the council’s direction, “but I do think we still need some time.”

“We’re not asking you to vote for the department tonight,” Entous said. “We’re only asking you to move forward with an implementation plan.”

The council directed city staff to come up with a plan for the new department by October. It would likely take about a year to implement that plan but council members said the deadlines are flexible. City Manager Scott Huth said it is more likely staff will return to council sometime in November.

“I’m concerned about trying to compile it all, getting it back to the Finance Committee to get some feedback on and then give a recommendation back to you in that timeframe,” he said. “That’s really short.”

“My thought would be to do it right, do it completely, as quickly as is reasonable, but not jeopardize all the other things we’re doing,” Sinnott said in response. He serves as a liaison to the Finance Committee. “This is something that we’ve been spending three plus years very carefully looking at, and it’s now, I think, time for the staff to carefully look at it so that the plan that comes back is well put together.”

Councilman Don Mosier agreed.

“This is a huge step for the city, so I don’t think we should rush this,” he said. “We’ve lived with the problems for many years, and I would like not to live with them for that much longer, but I also think it’s very important to do this right.”

“They’re not asking us to vote to start a police department,” Councilman Dwight Worden reiterated. “I don’t feel like we’re rushing. We’ve been studying this for a couple years, so this is a very logical, appropriate next step.”

As part of the implementation plan, Mosier requested a risk–benefit analysis.

“That needs some thorough vetting,” he said. “My gut tells me it’s going to be more expensive and that having our own police officers will solve some of the problems that are listed, but not all of them.”

There are many other details to consider such as how to recruit, train and retain staff, which Mosier noted could be a challenge for such a small city.

“I think we would be attractive as an organization to work for,” Huth said. “The other reality is every police organization in San Diego County is having a hard time recruiting and keeping staff. So we have to balance both what we think we would offer as a positive employer with the reality of what’s going on in the region.”

Still, Huth noted that Del Mar is not entirely new to law enforcement.

“One of the things that makes this discussion, other than the service component, unique to Del Mar is Del Mar has actually already made decisions in law enforcement area that have put us in a situation where this makes sense,” he said.

The city, for example, has a park ranger and enforces parking.

“These are components that are normally in other police departments, and so there’s things we’ve already committed to as a community that pushed us further along than the average community’s looking at for the first time.”