Del Mar moves to improve law enforcement services from Sheriff’s Department

By Kristina Houck

After hearing that a police department would cost more than $2 million a year and nearly $1 million in start-up costs, the Del Mar City Council on Nov. 18 decided not to establish its own department, but try to improve the services the city receives from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement services under contract with nine cities in the county. Del Mar currently spends about $1.78 million a year on its contract with the department, which includes one 24/7 patrol deputy, a full-time traffic deputy, a full-time detective and other support services totaling about 8.3 officers.

Although the council in January renewed a five-year contract with the department, Del Mar hired a consultant to review the city’s contract, compare the city’s law enforcement costs to other cities, and evaluate other law enforcement alternatives, such as creating a standalone police department. Ralph Andersen & Associates was awarded a $25,000 contract to conduct the study.

The study was prompted after the Finance Committee recommended the city research other viable options for law enforcement because of increased contract costs and service complaints from residents.

Except for slow response times and a perceived absence of deputies in the city, the report found that the level of law enforcement services provided by the department is satisfactory.

According to the report, in 2012, there were 2,470 calls for service, with 470, or 19 percent, generated from the fairgrounds. There were 213 arrests in Del Mar in 2012, including 119 in connection with the fairgrounds.

Data from June through August 2013 showed that 55 minutes was the average response time for priority four calls, which includes calls about loud parties, prowlers, fires, assaults, burglaries and more.

The average response time was 14 minutes for priority one calls (serious accident, airplane crash, SWAT alert, blood run or a disaster), almost 10 minutes for priority two calls (homicide, kidnapping, rape, armed robbery, residential burglary, grand theft, among others) and 13 minutes for priority three calls (minor accident, reckless driving, DUI, among others).

“Service is not good,” said Jim Benedict, chair of the Sheriff’s Sub-Committee and member of the Finance Committee. “This relationship is broken with the Sheriff’s Department right now.”

According to the report, the response times in Del Mar for high priority calls are consistent with the response times for Solana Beach and Encinitas. The Sheriff’s Department indicates that from Jan. 1, 2013 through Oct. 23, 2013, the average response times for priority one and two calls was 9.8 minutes in Solana Beach, 9.8 minutes in Encinitas and 10.2 minutes in Del Mar.

“The Sheriff’s Department is not only nationally known, but known throughout the world for quality service. As the station captain and essentially your chief of police, I believe in it,” said Sheriff’s Captain Robert Haley. “We work diligently to provide the best services. There are some limitations. You have one deputy.”

Haley noted that through the city’s contract, Del Mar has the full resources of the Sheriff’s Department. When 43,030 people visited the city on Opening Day at the racetrack, the department had about 50 officers on and around the site, he said.

Losing the department’s support during the summer season was one of Deputy Mayor Lee Haydu’s concerns about creating an in-house department.

“We’re a special city with special needs because we do have a beach that really takes so many tourists and we do have the fairgrounds,” Haydu said. “You cannot compare us to any other city around because they don’t have those things.”

If Del Mar were to establish its own police department, it would cost the city more than $2.2 million compared to $1.97 million for the projected 2014-15 Sheriff’s contract, according to the report.

“I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for,” Councilman Don Mosier said. “If you want the fanciest police department with a nice police station it’s going to cost a lot and we’re going to have to plan a lot longer for it.”

With this budget, a standalone department would employ 19 officers, 12 full-time and seven part-time. The city would have control and response times would improve. However, the staffing and cost of the transition period leading up to the department’s creation could cost the city nearly $1 million, according to the report.

“We definitely need more service one way or the another,” said Del Mar resident Bud Emerson.

“I’m not urging you to make a quick decision on this,” he said to the council. “This is a big, strategic move and it’s important. I’m just urging you to take it seriously and not shelve it.”

The council directed staff to use the recommendations in the report to develop a plan to measure improvements in areas such as response times and law enforcement presence. The report recommended that Del Mar change its contract to have one part-time detective instead of a full-time detective. The report also recommended the city obtain detailed data from the department to evaluate operations, encourage the department to place experienced lateral deputies in the city, and train patrol deputies to provide community outreach.

The council also directed the Finance Committee to continue studying alternatives to the sheriff’s contract. If service doesn’t improve in a year, the city may decide to create its own department, council members said.

“It’s one of the most important services that we can provide the community — fire, security, fixing the roads, providing water and sewer,” said Councilman Al Corti, who serves as a liaison to the Finance Committee. “We need to look at it seriously.”