After two years of attrition, the Palo Alto City Council is preparing to boost spending in the city's police and fire departments and restore positions that were cut over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The budgets for the city's three public safety departments — Police Department, Fire Department and Office of Emergency Services — are set to increase by 11% in the coming year, going from $80 million in fiscal year 2022 to $89.2 million in fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1. The number of positions would increase from 218 to 237. This includes 134 positions in the Police Department, 100 in the Fire Department and 2.5 in the Office of Emergency Services.
The Police Department plans to add more patrol officers and solidify its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, which pairs an officer with a Santa Clara County behavioral health professional to address calls involving an individual undergoing a mental health crisis. The team currently relies on a patrol officer to fill a position on the team, which operates from Sunday to Wednesday in 10-hour shifts. The budget includes a dedicated position for the team.
The budget reflects the recent uptick in Palo Alto's revenues after a two-year slump triggered by the pandemic. The Police Department has lost 13 sworn officer positions over the course of the pandemic, going from 92 authorized positions to 79. Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder noted at a "Meet the Chiefs" meeting last week that the number was actually lower than 79 because of retirements, resignations and injuries.
City Manager Ed Shikada's proposed budget, which the council is scheduled to approve next month, would bring the number to 84 by adding a detective, a personnel training lieutenant, an officer to serve on the PERT team and two officers who will be part of a "special problems detail" that focuses on property crimes and that will help divert homeless individuals in the downtown area to services.
The new detail will have a particular focus on burglaries at Stanford Shopping Center and downtown.
"It's high-visibility patrol," Binder said. "It's working on surveillance in certain areas, finding out where these are happening through historical analysis and data analysis and being there."
The proposal to add positions comes at a time when crime has by and large been on the decline. The Police Department received 38,189 calls for service in 2021, down from 44,654 in 2020, and 51,417 in 2022. The number of commercial and residential burglaries increased from 179 to 243 between 2019 and 2020 before dropping back to 179 in 2021.
"Even with all the things going on in our society, we have actually done a really good job in keeping crime really at a very reasonable level, and have actually had reductions in all our property-related offenses in 2021," Police Chief Robert Jonsen said at the "Meet the Chiefs" event.
Even with the crime reductions, auto thefts remain a problem. The department reported 1,724 thefts (which includes auto burglaries) in 2019, a number that dropped to 1,571 in 2020 and 1,356 in 2021. Even this, however, is an increase from 2018, when the department reported 1,197 thefts. And the council has been receiving complaints over the past year from specific areas where crime has been common, including Altaire Walk, a residential complex in south Palo Alto which saw a wave of package thefts. Downtown merchants have also complained about the large number of car break-ins.
In addition to the patrol positions, the budget also authorizes the department to hire a communication manager for the dispatch center, a technical services director and two dispatchers, additions that would beef up a Technical Division that has seen its total number of authorized positions from 37 to 29 between 2021 and 2022.
The Fire Department also will get a staffing boost this year after a period of reductions. This includes five firefighting positions that are funded by the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that the city received last year. The budget also authorizes the department's deputy chief to handle recruiting and succession planning, which will include boosting its efforts to recruit more women.
The department also plans to hire three firefighter trainees as part of an effort to strengthen its hiring pipeline and move quickly when vacancies arise. Fire Chief Geo Blackshire told the Finance Committee last week that it typically takes the department between 12 and 18 months to hire a firefighter.
"The goal is to get these trainees in a position and ready to hire so as soon as there's a vacancy, instead of waiting 12 and 18 months, they'll be ready to go — trained up and (able to) fill that vacancy in a short amount of time," Blackshire said.
The new positions mean that the department will now be able to fully staff all of its stations on a 24/7 basis. In the past, firefighters would "brownout" Station 2 in College Terrace, effectively shutting it down during periods of staffing shortages. Blackshire told the Finance Committee that with the positions restored, such measures will no longer be necessary.
"No more browning out of Fire Station 2, which is very significant in covering the city and for calls for service," Blackshire said.