San Clemente Vote to Disband Police Causes Fear, Anger
In the wake of a City Council vote to disband the Police Department and contract with the county Sheriff’s Department, some residents talked defiantly Thursday of recalling city officials. Meanwhile, a few officers expressed shock, disappointment and fear over their future.
Amid it all, some officers who previously had remained in the background came forward to support the City Council’s decision and spoke of their readiness to become sheriff’s deputies.
On Wednesday night, the council voted 4 to 1 to dismantle the 65-year-old Police Department by July 1. By switching to the Sheriff’s Department, the financially strapped city could save $2 million a year, city officials have said.
But skeptical residents have lampooned the estimate as specious and are fuming that the controversial issue was not put to a citywide ballot. They are threatening either to oust council members or to seek court injunctions to block the city from abolishing the 75-member department.
“I never thought it would go this far,” said Barry Vick, who is organizing a group of police supporters and has hired a lawyer to study their legal options. “The people are getting together to talk about a recall. . . . We’re going to do whatever we have to do to fight this. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a hostile takeover.”
Meanwhile, several officers and department employees spoke of the gamut of emotions they have experienced since the council’s decision, and their anxiety about facing a murky future.
“Everyone is just so listless and lifeless around here today, we don’t dare look at each other,” said one department employee, who like others interviewed Thursday insisted on anonymity. “It’s too hard to describe what we’re feeling right now because we’re all still in shock. Maybe tomorrow we could understand ourselves what we’re going through.”
One officer who attended Wednesday’s council meeting described the mood for most officers as “like going to a funeral.”
“It’s going to be hard to deal with a separation” from the city, added the six-year officer. “I feel very concerned about the people who don’t have their future positions confirmed right now. Then again, none of us are guaranteed anything.”
Sheriff’s officials have promised to hire all sworn officers from the department who pass standardized physical and psychological examinations and to place other employees in similar jobs. Sworn officers also were being promised a $10,000 to $14,000 annual raise for becoming deputies.
Although emotions are running high over the planned merger, Sheriff’s Department officials said they expect a smooth transition in the coming months.
“The people who live in the city shouldn’t expect any significant changes in the Police Department at all,” said Assistant Sheriff Dennis W. LaDucer, who also lives in San Clemente. “All of the men and women of the San Clemente Police Department, they have the safety of the citizens in mind, and they will continue to give the same quality of service they always have.”
At the request of the City Council, sheriff’s officials will close the city jail temporarily and study the possibility of creating a regional booking and dispatching center in San Clemente.
With the merger, the Police Department will remain open and emergency dispatching will continue to originate in the city.
The only glaring change, say sheriff’s officials, will be a switch from blue to green uniforms.
“The officers will see a pay check that says County of Orange for more money and people in the city are going to see more police cars,” LaDucer promised.
San Clemente will join six other South County cities that contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for police services. Laguna Beach would become the only South County city to have its own police department.
Apart from officers who opposed the merger, a few others said Thursday that they are relieved over the final outcome. While their faction stayed in the shadow throughout the heated debate, these officers said they were just as ardent in their support of switching to the Sheriff’s Department.
“I think it’s a good move for the city because it needs money, and this will allow it to spend money on other important functions,” Officer Brian Schmutz, 24, said. “I think the worst part is over because the waiting is over. We can now move on.”
Still reeling from the public displeasure at their action, council members also are moving ahead swiftly with their agenda. They have asked sheriff’s officials to prepare a final proposal outlining all services to be provided and all changes that have been made since the original draft was presented last month.
The final contract should be handed to the city within 75 to 90 days, sheriff’s officials said.
Council members defended their vote, saying it was one of the most difficult choices they have ever made.
“It was a tough decision and we made it; some will like and some will not,” Mayor Truman Benedict said. “If we didn’t accept the Sheriff’s Department bid, that would be like throwing money off at the end of the pier.”
Benedict, along with other council members, said he has no specific opinion on threats of a recall effort.
Councilman Thomas Lorch, who cast the lone dissenting vote, repeated Thursday that he believed the police issue, including an alternative for paying for the department, should be put to a vote of the public.
“After you take out the pride, tradition and local control issues, it’s a cost issue,” Lorch said. “If the citizens want to pay for it, they should have what they want.”
NEW TAXES CONSIDERED
City officials say ending police force won’t be enough to offset deficit. B7
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