When Marty West took over as police chief for the Oakdale Police Department in 2007, he had a budget with $1.2 million more than it does now and eight more officers to protect the city compared to the 20 currently assigned. Now, with the population and calls for service rising, he’s faced with having to lay off one more police officer to meet a 10 percent imposed cut to the department budget.
“Demands from citizens haven’t changed and we’ve met those demands despite staffing being cut by a third,” said Chief West.
At the March 21 city council meeting, citizens came out in dozens with many pleading for no more cuts to public safety. Some spoke about rising crime in the city and the need to keep out the criminal element.
“Once you lose that hold,” said one speaker, “it’s hard to get it back.”
During the meeting, West showed city statistics of a 15,000 population in 1998 with a department of 28 sworn personnel and then a 2010 figure with a 20,000 population and a department of 20 sworn.
Because of the lowered staffing, the self-initiated activity by patrol officers that worked as a strong deterrent to crime has fallen due to officers now being “call driven.” There are no longer multiple detectives to follow-up on crime and the traffic division has fallen to just a solo motorcycle officer.
West told the council that he truly needed a force of 32 officers to maintain the “quality of life” the city had prior to 2005.
“We need officers on the street making stops, confronting people, working informants, and making busts,” West told the group.
When asked by members of the council if he could supplement some of the tasks with volunteers, West responded, “We need badge carrying, gun toting, sworn officers to deal with these problems.”
In an interview, West said the city that once maintained a reputation of being safe because of its police department is being threatened.
“We had a strong presence with the 28 officers,” he said.
When West initially had to make personnel cuts last year, he looked at the support services of the department rather than the officers on the street.
“Patrol is the backbone of the department,” West claimed. “When someone calls or something happens, you want to have someone to respond.”
In addition to having to lay off four police officers, the department slashed a dispatch supervisor, a secretary, and two community service officers from their ranks. Four officer positions were lost through attrition.
With the reductions, specialty units are saddled with office tasks taking them away from their traditional assignments. His once three-member investigations division has dropped to one lone detective who must spend time filing cases with the district attorney in Modesto rather than investigating. The former three-officer traffic unit is now one motorcycle officer that spends a great amount of time having to compile statistics. Patrol officers are tied up with “cold calls” and sometimes animal service details because of the loss of the civilian personnel.
“We just don’t have the time we used to,” West said. “It’s starting to reflect with the rise in pedestrian accidents and graffiti in the city.”
Since the cuts, Oakdale is number one in the state in per capita pedestrian accidents and the top 15 percent of injury accidents. West attributes the rise to a drop in traffic enforcement.
West also identifies a nexus between graffiti and gang activity.
“There’s a fine line between graffiti, establishing turf, and a lead to gang violence,” he said.
A significant hit to the department and citizens is the loss of the school resource officers (SROs) that were able to gather gang information and interact with high school and middle school students.
West commended one-time SROs Max Messina and Joe Parreira who were able to recognize gang graffiti, gather gang developments, identify members, and forward information to patrol officers due to their assignments in the schools.
Chief West cited an incident where Officer Messina identified a suspicious student with a hidden weapon and intervened to prevent a planned stabbing.
“Those kinds of incidents prevent bigger things from happening,” West said. “Unfortunately we don’t have that resource anymore.”
Even with the personnel losses, West still upholds minimum staffing guidelines for the safety of personnel and service levels when members are off for vacations, illness, training, or other vacancies.
“My overtime budget is overspent,” West pointed out. “Overtime this year is going to be a challenge due to staffing.”
The department is looking at creative ways to maintain levels of protection and service to the city through grants, use of reserve police officers, and assistance from allied agencies.
The sheriff’s department has been relied upon for SWAT incidents, K-9 call outs, and for major investigations. West fears the city may start getting billed for those services in the future as the county looks for ways to balance their own budget shortfall.
For grants, such as traffic safety, personnel are pulled from the field to write and do research, but then time for revenue generation from citations is lost.
“Eight officers makes quite a difference,” the chief stated.