Responding to resident concerns about speeding cars and reckless drivers, the Palo Alto Police Department has brought back its traffic team, a police unit that will be dedicated to traffic enforcement, the department announced Wednesday.
The team, which consists of a motorcycle and a patrol unit, began its specialized traffic-focused assignment this week, according to the department's announcement. Once a department staple, the traffic team was disbanded about three years ago as the department dealt with vacancies and recruiting difficulties.
Those staffing challenges remain, with about 14 of the 83 full-time positions in the department currently vacant, according to a Human Resources Department report. Over the past two years, Palo Alto lost 11 officers to other departments, with five leaving for the city of Santa Clara, which had recently increased its department, according to the report.
The high number of vacancies has forced the department to depend more on overtime and to freeze certain specialty assignments to ensure enough coverage of essential services, according to the report. Responding to the recruiting difficulties, the City Council voted on June 25 to raise salaries for all positions in the Police Department by 5 percent, effective immediately.
The council approved the raises without discussion or debate; only Councilman Greg Tanaka, the sole dissenter, made a comment.
Tanaka, who routinely votes against items that include significant expenditures, said that while he supports raising police compensation to make the department more competitive when it comes to hiring, a 5 percent raise is too high, particularly given the city's ongoing effort to cut $4 million from its 2019 budget to address rising pension costs.
He said he would rather see the city give larger hiring bonuses to recruits to help Chief Robert Jonsen get the staff he needs.
"If we're trying to cut $4 million and trying to chip away at the pension liability, we're going in the wrong direction," Tanaka said.
Despite the staffing challenges, Jonsen decided earlier this year to "unfreeze" the traffic team, which will focus on "apprehending speeders and other traffic violators, patrolling school zones, and ensuring that oversized commercial vehicles use permitted routes," according to the department's announcement.
Jonsen said his decision was influenced by recent community meetings, where residents have cited traffic safety as a top concern.
"We heard the public loud and clear," Jonsen said in the news release. "Their number one complaint when it comes to public safety in Palo Alto is traffic. We want to be accountable and show our residents we are doing as much as we can to make the roads safer."
The department's revived traffic unit remains far smaller than it was in 2000, when it consisted of seven officers. The number gradually plummeted to two by 2012, thanks to budget cuts. In 2016, the unit was disbanded and traffic enforcement was assigned to patrol officers.
The newly reconstituted traffic team will also be patrolling parts of the city that have recently undergone roadway modifications, according to the news release.
The change, which Jonsen announced at a community meeting in March, won plaudits from several members of the City Council. During a May review of the department budget, just before the Finance Committee voted to approve the budget, Vice Mayor Eric Filseth lauded Jonsen's decision to bring the traffic team back.
"I think a lot of people would be happy with increased focus on traffic enforcement," Filseth said.