Longtime San Bernardino County resident Angie Consolo knows the history of the often-maligned Rialto police force all too well.
In the past decade, lawsuits against the department by its own officers have alleged rampant racism and sexism. Residents have complained of slow response times, dope deals in daylight and drug syringes discarded in the bedroom community of 100,000 residents.
But efforts to improve policing in Rialto have been just as controversial.
In September, after years of complaints and increases in the city’s crime rate, the City Council voted to disband the department and turn over law enforcement to the sheriff.
But that, too, prompted an uproar. A court order halted the plan, residents tried to recall council members, and the top two police officials retired. The council dropped its efforts to disband the department, and contract negotiations with officers began. A tentative agreement has been reached, and the council will vote on it this week.
An interim police chief is at the helm, and the department no longer seems threatened.
For residents such as Consolo, it was a matter of sticking with police who know the city. “We’ve had the Police Department forever,” she said. “They know our streets. Nothing against the Sheriff’s Department, but they would have to come in cold to this area.”
Rialto, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles along Interstate 10, is an ethnically diverse bedroom community just west of San Bernardino. The city’s violent crime rose 71% from 1998 to 2004 according to FBI statistics, while crime in the county fell.
The crime reports and a vote by officers expressing no confidence in their leaders are what prompted the council’s 4-1 vote to disband the department , officials said. “It had a lot to do with years of unhappiness and discontent with the Police Department,” said Councilman Ed Scott. “There’s been problems over there for 15 years.”
But the city’s reaction may have been unexpected. “Quite frankly, the administration underestimated some of the citizens of Rialto,” said Mayor Grace Vargas, the lone council member who voted to keep the Police Department.
The council’s decision brought lawsuits and strained emotions.
A San Bernardino County Superior Court judge temporarily barred the council from completing the deal. Judge Bob N. Krug said the council had to meet with the police union before contracting with the sheriff.
“We felt like our feet were being taken from under us,” said Andrew Pilcher, president of the Rialto Police Benefit Assn. “Things just went from point A to point Z with no in between.”
Residents launched a petition drive to recall council members, saying residents should have the right to vote on the issue. But the city clerk found there were not enough valid signatures.
“There’s just been so much acrimony and so much angst,” said Debra Axelrod, 49, a Rialto resident for a decade. “There’s been a huge line drawn in the dirt between the residents and the City Council.”
Former Chief Michael Meyers and Deputy Chief Arthur Burgess retired in late December. Both said they left for personal reasons unrelated to the August no-confidence vote.
Several officers alleged that Meyers and Burgess, both African Americans, discriminated against officers who were not black, and two federal lawsuits were filed by police personnel.
Meyers and Burgess were brought in to reinvigorate the department in 1998. At the time, it was the subject of a brief inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice following officer accusations of civil rights violations.
In all, police personnel have filed slightly more than 100 lawsuits against the department since 1990. Today it has 92 sworn officers with several resigning in recent weeks over job security concerns, union President Pilcher said.
Meanwhile, crime is dropping. The city says crime dropped overall by 19% in 2005.
Some residents, police officers and city officials say they see the department headed in the right direction under interimChief Frank Scialdone.
Rialto police arrested 10 Mexican nationals suspected of distributing heroin throughout California on Thursday, and a St. Patrick’s Day sting netted 29 arrests along with the seizure of 13.5 pounds of marijuana and eight guns.
The city’s outlook is improving, said Consolo. “The morale has improved a lot,” she said. “They may be a little understaffed, but the ones who stayed are doing an incredible job.”