Strategic planning workshop focuses on public safety

Public safety agencies are running efficiently, but staffers have to grapple with doing more with less for the foreseeable future.
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A “Victim of Our Own Success” For the fire department, doing more to ensure success means bringing on additional staff during peak fire season. “Right now, of the 53 reserves we have, we lose almost 20 during the peak fire season to CAL FIRE,” Winters Fire Department Chief Art Mendoza said. City Manager John Donlevy said many of the fire reserves who locate in Winters are attractive to other agencies, including CAL FIRE, because of the robust training program the Winters Fire Department puts reserve firefighters and volunteers through. Trainees receive first-hand experience in everything rescues in the water, canyons and trails surrounding the city to emergency response preparedness. For Winters, the investment in that training means throughout the year means the city has a decent pool of reserve firefighters and volunteers who can respond to emergencies. But when fire season starts, Donlevy said it’s not uncommon for CAL FIRE and other agencies to come to Winters and hire a significant amount of the city’s reserves. “We put together a first-class facility and we put together a training curriculum that these newly-graduated firefighters can come in and get that experience, that’s how we saw ourselves staffed,” Donlevy said. “We’re kind of the victim of our own success, because what’s happens is CAL FIRE comes in and they hire the entire room of all of our personnel.” When fire season is over, some of those personnel come back to Winters, meaning staffing is slightly higher in the winter months. But in the critical summer months, Winters fire officials say they can feel the pinch. During the meeting, Mendoza used staffing level data from 2017 to show fluctuations in the amount of department personnel available throughout the year. In February 2017, the fire department had 85 volunteers on hand, slightly exceeding the agency’s staffing goal. But just two months later, that number plummeted to 52 volunteers, well short of the 90 volunteers the department hoped to have that month. The average hovers just under 60 volunteer firefighters throughout the remainder of the fire season. “It puts a strain on everybody, but we make it work,” Mendoza said. One thing that can help alleviate some of that strain: Hiring a full-time fire marshal. Right now, Mendoza says he not only goes out on calls, but also has to act as the fire inspector who signs off on certain aspects of construction projects, such as making sure fire alarms and sprinkler systems are installed and up to code. As construction in the city increases, Mendoza’s schedule becomes more crunched. “We’re Ghostbusters” For the police department, recent legislative changes means a retooling of practices and procedures for interacting with members of the community, from how to handle chronic homelessness to maneuvering the complexities of civil and criminal offenses. Right off the bat, Winters Police Chief John Miller made certain legislative initiatives a focal point of his presentation at the strategic planning workshop, leaning on his years of experience to shed lights on how community policing has changed over the last few years. “Different people can have different perceptions of the same thing based on how they see it,” Miller said. “I’ve been a cadet since I was 14 years old; I became an officer since I was 21. I’ve become very engrained in how I see things as a police officer.” One of the starkest examples of how Miller’s perspective on things has become further engrained throughout his career is how law enforcement changed during the early 1990s — when Miller started on as a reserve deputy with the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department — during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. “We had hundreds of drug dealers on the street,” Miller said. “They gave us a lot of…new laws to address that situation and get it under control.” Those new laws created a sentencing disparity that disproportionately targeted African-Americans and lower-income individuals, a disparity that led to tougher jail sentences and overcrowding in some county jails and state prisons. That kind of reform has not surfaced during the recent opioid epidemic to hit the country, which has been shown to affect mostly white individuals from middle-class backgrounds (one that Miller, as he knocked on the wooden conference table, reported had not been an issue in Winters). Still, Miller said the earlier tougher laws allowed police to get a handle on the crack epidemic. With crime rates reduced, he said public sentiment was swinging in the other direction toward more lenience for criminal and civil matters. And that’s a problem, Miller says, because it effectively ties the hands of police when it comes to dealing with troubling situations in the community. “There’s a lot of tension in our society, I think everyone can agree on that, and unfortunately some law enforcement was caught in keeping the peace,” Miller said. “Law enforcement gets called into these situations because we’re the first agency of last resort. Who are you going to call? You call the police. We’re ghostbusters. We fix everything.” But they can’t fix everything when lawmakers and judges appear to side against the police. Take, for instance, a recent federal court case from Boise, Idaho that lawmakers and police have largely seen as allowing homeless individuals to set up camps wherever they want on public lands without any kind of consequence. “We cannot arrest them, we cannot give them a ticket for taking up housing in there,” Miller said. “So it’s like, what do we do with these folks? It’s hampering our ability to address that.” Officers do have limited abilities to address it: Parks in Winters are only open to the public between certain hours, and anyone who tries to sleep in the park when it is closed can be required to move. The court in the Boise case also said cities have the right to prohibit homeless encampments, similar to ones in Woodland and Sacramento, from popping up in public spaces, and said cities are empowered to prevent homeless people from sleeping in open parks when there are adequate resources and shelters for that population. Winters police officers and public works employees have conducted “sweeps” of transient camps before, with the latest sweep occurring last July, according to a press release sent to the Express (the police department stopped sending press releases to the newspaper in August). At the time, Miller said homeless individuals at four encampments were “advised of available resources for the homeless.” In an email with the Express, Miller clarified his officers offered information to transients about food assistance and shelters available throughout Yolo County. At December’s meeting, Miller said the city had identified between five and eight “chronically homeless” individuals who were informed of shelters that were available to them. Those offers were rejected, Miller said, in part because the shelters are substance-free zones and have curfews. “They’ve rejected the resources,” Miller said. “They’ve chosen the lifestyle [of being homeless]. They actually enjoy that lifestyle.” Hazing “Does Have a Purpose”  The laws have not just impacted homelessness: Law enforcement officials argue they hamper the ability of police and prosecutors to bring criminals to justice. Miller cited five years worth of data to show a dip, and then a sudden spike, in property crime and violent crime in California, and compared it to national data that, at times, showed the opposite trend (Miller did not provide local or county data). “We have a lot of changes going on specifically within the state of California,” Miller said. Not only have the laws made it harder to police certain crimes, legislators and even college administrators have made things more difficult when it comes to attracting qualified law enforcement candidates. For one, lawmakers have strengthened training requirements for law enforcement officials, requiring prospective police officers to attend 22 to 26 weeks of training at academies that are run locally by community colleges. Those colleges have made it tougher to disqualify some recruits thanks in part to training reforms that eliminated abusive language and hazing, Miller said. “At training, they can’t yell at you,” Miller complained. “The restrictions of community colleges prohibit that kind of hazing. It actually served a purpose for us which was to weed out people who cannot handle the stress, so it does have a purpose.” Another potential roadblock: The public’s perspective that making a mistake can result in a lifetime ban from a career in law enforcement. “Back in the day, the hiring criteria was pretty strenuous,” City Manager Donlevy said. “You could never have used any type of narcotic. You could not have committed even a petty crime, that was a disqualification.” Now, the police department is a bit more forgiving when it comes to hiring on officers. “If someone has used marijuana or a type of drug, it is not a disqualification — they have to be honest and say it did it,” Donlevy said, adding that background checks conducted on police candidates are largely intended to make sure that answers given to surveys and interview questions as part of the hiring process are accurate. “Somebody who has committed some type of crime, they can become a police officer, but they have to be honest with that,” Donlevy noted. “That’s the number one criteria for becoming a police officer is honesty because…it’s our number one liability. I tell folks that we have these [officers] who work here that [the city] gives guns to, and we tell them they can use it whenever they feel it is necessary. That’s a huge liability for the city [to] the point where one of our officers goes out and shoots somebody, it instantly costs us $1 million.” Liability aside, Miller said the state is suffering from a shortage of qualified police candidates and that the market for those candidates is extremely competitive. That puts Winters at a slight disadvantage compared to larger communities because, while the police department is a significant chunk of the city’s budget, there’s still only so much money to go around. “It is simple economics where supply and demand drive price,” Miller wrote in an email. “We are positioned between the Bay Area and Sacramento, so there are ample employment opportunities and all our neighboring agencies are actively hiring…many agencies are now even offering hiring bonuses of up to $10,000.” Miller said most of his officers say they enjoy working in Winters, and a community that once felt alienated by the police force has embraced the agency under his watch. Still, “regardless how much officers want to stay and/or enjoy working in Winters, if the pay and benefits fall too far off the mark, it would behoove them for them and their families to seek other employment,” Miller wrote. Recruitment issues may have been on the minds of those in attendance, but it barely registered with those polled during an interactive survey after Miller’s presentation. Of 26 people polled, three said personnel costs was a significant trend for the police department; only one person polled said technology costs were. Instead, the majority of people surveyed felt the long-term implications of various laws passed by legislators over the last decade mattered the most when it comes to how police officers are able to do their job. It was, no doubt, a victory for Miller: He opened his presentation by targeting those initiatives, and by the end of his comments, he had convinced the people in the room that a perceived softening of the laws mattered the most.]]>

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