A potential consideration to outsource police services in East Palo Alto to the San Mateo County Sheriff has a council member concerned for the stability of law enforcement in the city.
City Council member Ruben Abrica made a formal request to City Manager Magda Gonzalez and Assistant City Manager Barbara Powell on Jan. 21 asking for confirmation regarding rumors that the manager's office is considering the switch. He has not yet received a written response, but Assistant City Manager Barbara Powell confirmed the city manager's office is looking into outsourcing police services. A staff report will be presented Feb. 4 at the city council meeting.
"If Council asks staff to collect information, we will do so and we will then bring the information back to the Council at a subsequent meeting, at which time they will decide if they want to continue to explore options for the provision of Public Safety Services," Powell wrote in an email to the Weekly.
Abrica said he is concerned that a switch would destabilize progress the city has made in controlling crime. The city is currently searching for a new police chief after the departure of longtime chief Ronald Davis.
Under Davis, the city saw a dramatic decrease in murders, although violent crimes were not completely eliminated. Davis whipped a chaotic department into shape after a San Mateo grand jury issued a scathing report about its practices, which included the need to properly train officers.
Davis held officers accountable for inappropriate actions, and he instituted "community policing" strategies to improve the department's relationship with residents. Several partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, the faith community and social services agencies resulted in a preemptive approach that met with gang members to tamp down violence when shootings began to rise.
Capt. Federico Rocha became interim chief, but he was replaced by City Manager Magda Gonzalez on Jan. 21 after approaching the maximum number of annual hours allowable for a retiree to work for the city, as regulated by the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), Gonzalez said. Retired public employees can only work 960 hours per year from June 30 to July 1. He was replaced by former San Bruno police chief Lee Violett as interim chief.
Abrica said he's concerned about the city manager's office's lack of communication with the council regarding contracting out police work.
"My main concern is that before top management does anything in this area, the council needs to give guidance. Police department employees need to be heard as well.
"This is not the same as contracting out cleaning of the windows. The police department is the biggest part of our expenses. These kinds of changes start to create a certain instability," he said.
From the very start of the city's incorporation movement in the early 1980s, Abrica, who was involved in the movement, said having a local accounting of police services was a central concern.
"This is no reflection on the Sheriff's Office," he said. He added he has heard a general anxiety among residents about what is going on with the police department.
"In the past five years, there has been a general improvement and more responsiveness from the police department. It's a good place to be, and we need to build on that, Anything that can jeopardize the progress we've made is not acceptable. This is a very serious and sensitive issue, and we need to pay attention to it," he said.
The city manager's office has declined further comment.