Facts Collide in Hermosa’s Police Debate : Law enforcement: Proponents say a proposal to replace city officers with sheriff’s deputies will save money. The police union claims it will raise costs.
With a cross-fire of conflicting facts and figures, a bitter debate is raging in Hermosa Beach over whether it makes financial and practical sense to replace city police officers with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
Calling the contracting proposal a hostile takeover attempt, the Hermosa Beach police union has hired a financial consultant and launched a lobbying effort to derail the cost-cutting plan pushed by some city officials and prove that hometown policing is not an extravagance.
The Hermosa Beach Police Officers Assn. says its research shows the deputies are costlier, have slower response times and cannot possibly duplicate the service provided by Hermosa Beach police.
“There is no way they can provide the level of service, the responsiveness that we provide,” union spokesman Sgt. Wally Moore said. “Unfortunately, whether we like it or not we’re in a spitting contest with the sheriff.”
The city has so far agreed only to study the idea, but even that has Hermosa’s 40-officer department in an uproar.
The union says its study, completed Friday by the Law Enforcement Management Center in Westminster, concludes that city police cost 73 cents per minute compared to $1.23 per minute for the Sheriff’s Department. Union officials refused to release the report because they said its contents could be used by the Sheriff’s Department to buttress its position. More detailed results will be released this week, union officials said.
The union’s conclusions conflict with the Sheriff Department’s report, released last month, which says the city could save as much as $1 million a year and get better deployment of officers by turning Police Headquarters into a sheriff’s substation.
But even those city officials pressing the contracting issue say the sheriff’s cost analysis was based on outdated budget figures. They say the potential savings would be somewhere below $800,000, significantly less than the $1.9 million estimated by city officials in February when they decided to commission the sheriff’s study.
“You can say anything with statistics, numbers and figures,” said Councilman Roger Creighton, who favors contracting if it can be shown to save at least 20% over the current police budget of roughly $3 million.
“Anybody can project, propose or display the figures that would make their position look better. After all the revealing is done, it will be the council’s job to review the police logs and find out how many patrol units we have had on the streets and how much they cost.”
The financial uncertainty, coupled with recent corruption and brutality allegations against the Sheriff’s Department, have raised questions in the minds of many locals about proceeding with the contracting issue.
“There are people who don’t want the county sheriffs around,” Creighton acknowledged, citing telephone calls from residents. “They point to (a recent rash of) officer-involved shootings. They are concerned about the performance of the sheriff’s (deputies).”
A public hearing on the matter is scheduled Oct. 22. City officials said they will first hold a closed-door hearing Oct. 1 to give police union members and officials from Teamster’s Local 911, which represents civilian police employees, an opportunity to meet with Sheriff’s Department representatives.
The police union decided last week, however, that it would boycott such closed meetings and present its case at the public hearing so residents can hear the officers’ views directly.
The debate over the sheriff’s study has pitted the Police Department’s officers against their chief, Steve Wisniewski, who prepared the original report suggesting that deputies may be cheaper than city officers.
Wisniewski says officers view him as disloyal. But he contends that he was following the direction of City Manager Kevin Northcraft and the City Council, who asked him to investigate whether deputies might save the city’s tight budget some money.
Another wedge was driven between the chief and the officers last week when Wisniewski learned that he will play an even greater role in the contracting issue in the coming weeks. He was named to replace Northcraft temporarily as city manager when Northcraft resigns Oct. 7 to take a job in Upland in San Bernardino County.
Several officers said they feel abandoned by their chief’s lack of support. They considered taking a vote of no-confidence against Wisniewski at a union meeting last week but decided that it might cloud debate on the issues.
“Acrimony is an understatement,” said Cmdr. Anthony Altfeld, a police union representative and 15-year veteran. “The rank-and-file officers are emotionally upset. They feel that there has been a failure at the department head level of representing them.”
The city agreed to pay $3,500 for the sheriff’s study in February when contract negotiations between the city and police union stalled. Union officials maintain that the contracting proposal is a negotiating ploy, but city officials call it nothing more than an attempt at cost-cutting. The two sides are scheduled to begin negotiating next year’s contract soon.
Hermosa is not the only city that has grappled recently with the divisive issue of changing law enforcement agencies. Hawthorne shelved plans to contract with the Sheriff’s Department in June after a citizens panel said it might be costlier than the city’s own operation.
In Lawndale, which contracts with the Sheriff’s Department, officials are investigating other options because the city’s law enforcement budget has risen 11% over the last two years, City Manager John Nowak said.
Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Torrance were not interested in taking over Lawndale’s law enforcement service. Gardena submitted a preliminary proposal indicating it would charge Lawndale more than the county. Hawthorne will submit a cost estimate later this month.
Other South Bay municipalities patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department are Carson, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates and Rolling Hills. Avalon on Catalina Island and unincorporated county areas such as Lennox also fall under the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Hermosa Beach Mayor Kathleen Midstokke said at last week’s council meeting that the city should take its time investigating the contracting issue, perhaps putting it on the ballot for voters to decide during the 1993 municipal election. Holding a special election any time sooner would cost the city $40,000, she said.
But Northcraft suggested that two years is a long time to wait.
“I would think the council would want to move ahead with this issue because it is causing a lot of anxiety in the department,” he said. “It is like a dagger over their heads, and I think some resolution to the issue should be made so the employees can make some kind of a decision about their careers and their futures.”
Sheriff’s officials have said that Hermosa officers and civilian employees would be hired by the county if the Sheriff’s Department took over and that no jobs would be lost. Nonetheless, officers remain concerned about the potential change.
Councilman Chuck Sheldon said a decision on the matter should be made after November’s City Council elections, in which 11 candidates are vying for seats being vacated by Sheldon and Creighton. All 11 candidates have opposed the idea of replacing city officers with deputies.