After years of budget cuts and staff freezes, the Palo Alto Police Department is now experiencing an "early thaw" and looking forward to hiring more officers and restoring a motorcycle-riding team of traffic enforcers that was disbanded during the leaner times of yesteryear.
The Police Department has been hit particularly hard by the budget-cutting years of the Great Recession. Its traffic team, which in 2000 consisted of seven officers, shriveled down to two in 2012. Last year, the city disbanded the team and assigned its roles to field officers, a move that the city acknowledged would lead to decreased enforcement. The city, looking to balance the books, also froze seven positions in the department. The department of 91 sworn-officers positions had 14 vacancies last year.
This year, with revenues soaring and the budget comfortably balanced, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Almost all the vacancies are now filled, and on Thursday the City Council's Finance Committee recommended unfreezing the seven positions that were put on hold last year. The department has recently made offers to two officers for the soon-to-be-unfrozen positions as part of what police Capt. Ron Watson called an "early thaw."
By historic standards, the department's staffing levels remain relatively modest. Forty years ago, the department had 110 sworn officers, Watson told the Finance Committee. That number has been dropping steadily over the decades, most notably during the dotcom bust days of the early 2000s. This year, with the seven position unfrozen, the department will have 91 sworn officers, Watson said.
"It's been a decline over the decades that probably fairly well tracks the recessions that have come and gone," Watson said.
Today, the department doesn't have a stand-alone traffic team, Watson said, but uses officers working the day shift to support traffic-enforcement operations. This summer, with vacancies filled and positions unfrozen, the traffic team is coming back. It will consist of a sergeant and two officers and will be up and running by the beginning of the school year, Watson said. Eventually, more members could be added.
Unfreezing the position will raise the department's expenditures by $1.2 million. At the same time, the department will save $1.4 million this year because of benefit reforms that the city had negotiated with its largest police union, Palo Alto Police Officers Association. Overall, the police department's expenditures are expected to rise by $100,000, from $32.2 million to $32.3 million, according to City Manager James Keene's proposed budget for fiscal year 2014.
Finance Committee Chair Pat Burt lauded the fact that the department able to restore the positions without significantly raising its budget.
"I'm pleased that because we got the benefits savings -- here's a direct correlation -- we can get the position back," Burt said. "It's a positive trend for the community and the department."
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilman Marc Berman also spoke out in favor of restoring another police department position -- a school-resource officer. The department traditionally has two school-resource officers, with one assigned to each high school and each occasionally making appearances at middle schools. More recently, the city had only one school-resource officer, whose salary is shared by the city and the school district. The officer splits time between high schools and generally doesn't get to the middle schools.
The position, Watson said, has gotten busier in recent months, with cyber-bullying and online safety emerging as prominent issues. He also alluded to other incidents that had taken place at local schools, including one in which a homemade gun was brought to school and another one where a Taser was brought in as a result of "an off-campus deal gone bad."
"We're not immune to those incidents," Watson said. "We do the best we can with what you give us, but some day we'd love to have the other one back."
Shepherd said the position is important for establishing a positive relationship between students and officers, which could lead to crime reductions down the road.
"From personal experience, it's a really different experience for youths in the community to have contact with a resource officer versus the 'transaction experience' you'd get when you're pulled over for a traffic ticket," Shepherd said. "I really do miss this a lot and I think it's something we might want to seriously consider."
Councilman Marc Berman said he was disappointed to see that that school-resource officers no longer go to middle schools.
"In high school it's a little too late sometimes to get them back on the right path," Berman said. "The impact that a positive interaction with police can have in middle school means more than it does once students get to high school."
The committee stopped short of adding the position but agreed to include it in a pool of items that will be reconsidered at the end of the budget-setting process. Keene recommended caution and said staff hasn't reached the conclusion that adding another school-resource officer would be fully justified. He said he would like to see some "return on investment" data before adding the position.
"While we're sort of in better shape, I think in general our approach has been to keep our staffing at existing levels in the organization," Keene said.