Sheriff’s Department studies cost of taking over policing in Pomona

In the calm of a warm spring evening, a man in uniform stood alone at Pomona’s civic center, gathering his thoughts.

Police Chief Dave Keetle stared for a few moments at a plaque dedicated to his father, a former council member, before heading into a meeting. Lately, the younger Keetle has thought about his own legacy and whether he will be asked to dismantle a Police Department his late father passionately supported.

At the city’s request, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has completed a preliminary study on the cost of taking over police services. The ultimate decision — if it comes to that — would be left to the voters, possibly as early as this fall.

Pomona, with a population of more than 155,000, would be the largest city in the county to turn to the Sheriff’s Department to save money. Hiring deputies could save the city millions — and chip away at a $14.2-million deficit.

Pomona council members say that the proposal is only in the exploratory stage, but, nonetheless, a funk has descended on the rank and file in a department that is nearing its 100th anniversary and that believes it deserves credit for turning the tide on years of violent crime and gang activity.

“There’s people who have put in 20 to 30 years here,” Keetle said. “They’ve dedicated their lives to this city.”

Pomona is hardly the first L.A. County city to look at disbanding its police department. Tiny Sierra Madre considered doing away with its force, but ultimately rejected the idea. Maywood pulled the plug on its police force and virtually every other City Hall job earlier this month. Cudahy, which had been policed by Maywood, is now patrolled by sheriff’s deputies.

The city has an operating budget of about $90 million, half of which goes to the Police Department.

“The fact that Pomona, which has a long-standing Police Department, has approached us is pretty interesting,” Sheriff’s Capt. Bruce Fogarty said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from other cities in these economic times.”

The city is home to the 12th Street gang, which has about 1,000 members and deep ties in the community. Pomona was once described by authorities as “a hotbed of gang activity.” In 1989, the city reported 45 murders, the highest recorded in any San Gabriel Valley city at the time.

Police have since zeroed in on the gang and the murder rate has dropped. Last year there were 17 homicides, and residents say the streets seem safer.

“It tends to have a bad rap, but I’ve never felt unsafe,” said Deb Mashek, a psychology professor at Harvey Mudd College who moved to Pomona five years ago.

Mashek, 35, was among the hundreds of sign-waving residents and city employees who flooded council chambers earlier this year to protest the possibility of shutting down the Police Department.

The department’s future has been up for debate before. In 1986, Pomona was having money trouble and explored contracting out police, fire and library services. The issue was abandoned, although the county took over the Fire Department soon after. In 1990, council members talked openly about getting rid of the police force but then abruptly dropped the idea.

This time, the mere request to explore shutting down the Police Department has spurred a debate that reaches deep inside Pomona’s neighborhoods.

The Pomona police force has a long history of controversy, including accusations of racial profiling, police brutality and a code of silence among officers. In 1996, an officer sued the city, alleging that his colleagues harassed him after he reported that officers were stealing money and planting drugs on suspects. More recently, the department was accused of targeting Latinos by setting up traffic checkpoints during holidays like Cinco de Mayo and using what Councilwoman Cristina Carrizosa called “Gestapo"-like tactics.

Hank Fung, a 28-year-old civil engineer, said he takes issue with the “instantaneous support” some residents have showered on police.

“To put all the options on the table is something that’s fiscally responsible when you have a city that has a huge budget deficit,” Fung said.

Other residents say more thought should have been given to the effect on officers’ attitudes.

“Who wants to go all out if you think you’re going to be canned the next day?” said Tamara Fair, 51, a Neighborhood Watch block captain of five years. “I just think we’re throwing our Police Department under the bus.”

The evaluation, which was finished in June, is being reviewed by city staff and an outside consultant. A more comprehensive study will be conducted at a cost of about $25,000 if the city decides to press forward.

Councilman Stephen Atchley doubts that it will get that far. “It appears that public sentiment is ‘hell no,’ and that’s to be expected,” he said. “Most people don’t really get the seriousness of the issue. It just doesn’t dawn on people how city finances work, where the money comes from and goes to.”

Meanwhile, the Pomona Police Officers Assn. has attempted to rally the city around the issue. A Save Pomona PD website was created, e-mails have been blasted, and red signs reading “Our Safety. Our Police” were printed and distributed. They have even reached out to leaders in Compton, which turned its law enforcement over to the county a decade ago but is pushing for its return.

At the same time, officers can’t shake the feeling that they have been betrayed by the city they serve.

“I had a discussion with the city manager, and we talked about loyalty one day, and she said her loyalty was to the community, not to the employees,” said Sgt. Rob Baker, president of the officers’ association. “I was crushed. Are you kidding me? I’ve been hurt; I’ve been shot at; I’ve had to use legal force; and I’m a workaholic. And you don’t consider me part of your community?”

Association members say they were caught off-guard by the recent proposal and have accused City Manager Linda Lowry of deliberately keeping them in the dark.

Lowry said she was upfront with the officers and has grown tired of the personal attacks.

“You can’t continue to degrade the level of services in every other sector without finally addressing significant cuts in public safety,” she said.