Police department proposal exposes Del Mar divide

The City of Del Mar is considering whether to end its contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and start its own police department.

Del Mar could save $365,000 per year, reduce police response times and improve police service overall by ending its contract with the Sheriff’s Department and instead start its own police department, a report by city staff has concluded.

The report was presented to the City Council at its meeting on Monday, April 3.

Although the report was unequivocal in recommending the benefits of a stand-alone police department versus the current contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Monday’s discussion highlighted deep divisions both within the community and on the council, and the issue remains far from settled.

One of the leading opponents to the idea is Councilman Dave Druker, who was re-elected to the council last November after previously serving on the panel.

Monday, he noted that during the run-up to the November election, three candidates came out in favor of Del Mar launching its own police department, and, “not one of them is sitting on this dais tonight.”

“The public is not in favor of having a police department,” said Druker. “They’ve made their minds up.”

Last week, Druker sent out an email to Del Mar residents, outlining his objections to a proposed police department, and asking them to email the city if they agreed with his position.

City Clerk Ashley Jones reported that the city had received 106 emails opposed to the police department proposal, and two in favor.

Mayor Terry Sinnott took Druker to task for his email to constituents.

“From my perspective, you are throwing up every possible suggestion, idea, and thought out of the blue to try to stop this effort from going forward,” Sinnott said. The email “got everybody excited, agitated and inflamed when we hadn’t had a chance to discuss it.”

Sinnott said he favored going out to the community over the next several months, having a robust discussion of the issue and then bringing the proposal back to the council for a decision.

“I think we owe it to our community to really allow them time to learn about it,” Sinnott said.

Councilman Dwight Worden said he had three main questions about the proposal to start a police department: can police services be provided at the same or lesser cost, will it provide better service and will the city be able to manage the potential liability and pension costs?

“I think the report answers all three of those yes,” he said. “There’s a lot of appeal to pursuing this further, a lot of benefits are potentially there. It would be very premature and inappropriate to end the dialogue tonight.”

After listening to City Manager Scott Huth’s report, public testimony and having its own discussion, the council voted 5-0 to hold a special workshop on the police department proposal before deciding whether to launch a community outreach effort.

Huth’s report said, “a stand-alone Police Department... would allow for a community based policing model that provides Del Mar with continuity, better response times and additional staff at a reduced annual cost.”

The city, which covers 1.8 square miles and has some 4,100 residents, spends $2.7 million annually on its current contract with the Sheriff’s Department. A Del Mar Police Department budget would run $2.3 million, said the report. Start-up costs of $2 million to $3 million would be recouped in five to seven years.

The city report said Sheriff’s response times to “priority 4” calls, the least serious types of incidents, which could include loud parties, trespassing or petty theft, average 47.6 minutes. One reason is that the deputy assigned to Del Mar is actually handling calls outside city limits about 40 percent of the time.

“This dynamic leads to longer response times in Del Mar and also impacts the law enforcement presence in our community,” the report said.

Another benefit of a city police department, said the report, is that it would end the high turnover rate that currently exists among sheriff’s personnel assigned to the city. Huth told the council that during his five-year tenure with the city, the Sheriff’s Department has had four different captains in charge of the Encinitas Sheriff’s station, a position that equates to chief of police for contract cities such as Del Mar.

The report proposed a department with the equivalent of 19 full-time positions, up from the 15.8 now available under the sheriff’s contract.

In his email, Druker listed a number of reasons he is against the proposal, including: Increased city staffing; the need to build a police station and jail or holding tank, possibly at the site of the new City Hall; that Del Mar residents would be subject to increased ticketing for traffic violations; and the council would have to spend more time dealing with law enforcement issues. He also said that city management would want pay raises because of the increased responsibility of supervising a police department.

Residents, said Druker, “don’t want to change the way Del Mar works that substantially.”

The public was also divided.

“The residents of the beach community need help,” said Robin Crabtree, who described scenes of chaos on weekends, when no law enforcement support is available. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

Laura DeMarco, however, said she would rather see the city spend its money on such projects as undergrounding utilities or developing the Shores Park, rather than on a new police station. She also warned of escalating pension costs that could bite the city if it forms a police force.

“That is a train coming down the tracks you don’t want to be on,” she said.