Community Commentary: Council should listen to interim chief’s opinion

Given the new City Council majority is moving with maximum haste to dismantle Costa Mesa’s public safety infrastructure, it is important to take the time to understand some of the implications for the safety and security of our city.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am a member of the newest class of evildoer; I am a public safety retiree. But having been employed in the Costa Mesa Police Department for more than 30 years and as a resident of the city, it is immensely disturbing to see Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and his cronies unwind more than 50 years of careful, measured local governance by both elected officials and city employees who have effectively served the needs of this community.

The current basis for the reduction of police officer staffing from 164 sworn officers to 125 is a recommendation from the city chief executive that disregards a study by an outside consultant and the advice of one of the most highly respected law enforcement officials in Southern California: interim Police Steve Chief Staveley.

There is substantial evidence that the staffing level of 125 officers is a number the council majority picked prior to obtaining any expert advice. After cutting to 125 officers, they expect to hire back five with a federal grant.

Having worked around and with a number of government grants, it is somewhat unlikely that the federal government will allow the city to reduce staffing from 164 to 125, then hire back five using a grant. Even at 130 sworn officers, this puts staffing at levels that have not been seen since the early 1980s. The city’s population then was about 85,000 — about 30% less than today.

In Staveley’s view, the absolute minimum for police staffing is 140 sworn. As an interim chief, and having been the chief officer of a variety of state and local police agencies, he provides a balanced and objective view.

He does not say that 140 is good; he says it is the minimum acceptable. You can infer that he thinks staffing to 130 would be dangerous for the community. I think we should listen to him.

The problem with reducing the police staffing levels to extremely low levels is that it forces a fundamental and negative transformation in policing. As the department shrinks in size, operations will gradually shift from proactive to reactive policing. Instead of having our officers engage in real problem solving they will spend most of their time rushing around, trying to put Band-Aid fixes on chronic problems.

They call this chasing the radio. This is how it was done in the 1970s and ‘80s and it does not work. Community-oriented policing (COPs) and problem-oriented policing were the strategies that made policing vastly more effective and responsive to the community. It will not be an option at a staffing level of 130. With adequate staffing and COPS , the city has seen a steady decrease in crime.

Costa Mesa is not Newport Beach, Irvine or even Huntington Beach. We have factors and issues in this city that set us apart from our neighbors and, which left unattended, can go badly for all of us.

We have street gangs that have only been kept in check by the stringent application of a high ratio of gang officers supplemented by a highly trained patrol force. Costa Mesa has suffered the presence of other forms of organized crime including prison gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs, regional and international drug trafficking organizations, and even organized Eastern European organized crime.

Perhaps even more worrisome is the high ratio of probationers and prison parolees, including a large number of sexual offenders, who reside in Costa Mesa. We have more halfway houses and recovery homes than most of our neighboring cities combined. The most recent Supreme Court decision to release nearly 40,000 inmates will only make the problem in a city like Costa Mesa worse. I assure you, this is a population that must be proactively monitored.

The citizens of Costa Mesa expect a high level of service and handling calls for service is extremely important to the community and a top priority. But in reality, the reactive handling of routine calls for service does little to impact crime and safety. The proactive effort to selectively seek out career criminals, sexual predators, gang members and, yes, drunk drivers is what keeps this community safe. Unfortunately, the Police Department is rapidly losing this capability.

While violent crime tends to grab the headlines, in any given year a Costa Mesa citizen is much more likely to be killed or seriously injured in a DUI related traffic collision than by any other criminal act. Clearly DUI enforcement is a low priority for our new council members, but the fact is that only the immediate and real threat of being subject to enforcement for DUI keeps our teenagers and young adults from engaging in this riskiest of behaviors.

Similarly, you are more likely to be a victim of an economic crime or identity theft than you are of a violent crime. The sheer size of the booming retail space in our city makes our community even more vulnerable.

As someone who has repeatedly witnessed the critical importance of airborne law enforcement in protecting this community, the loss of the helicopter program is singularly disturbing. Righeimer claimed the benefit of the helicopter program did not justify the cost. I would like to know the basis for this analysis because as a field sergeant and watch commander I watched on a nightly basis as the helicopter leveraged up our deployments and gave us an unparalleled advantage over the criminal element.

Whether it was vehicle or foot pursuits, perimeters or containment on crimes in progress, or a general presence that made committing crime in Costa Mesa less desirable, the helicopter was an invaluable tool. Given that cost of the helicopter program was shared among three cities, the taxpayer got a very high level of cost effectiveness. Bottom-line though, when really bad things are happening, the helicopter was the single most important asset in terms of protecting our community.

The reason given for the damage being done to our public safety programs is the budget shortfalls, but the numbers on this seem to change as rapidly as the reasons. From the need to pay for deferred maintenance, to projected pension costs, to dismal forecasts about the economy, the justification for the massive reduction in public safety is a moving target.

What is absolutely clear though is that underlying motive for the bleeding of our public safety entities is the council majorities’ politically motivated campaign against organized labor and the existing pension plan. As a lifelong Republican, I am saddened to observe that the Orange County GOP is using Costa Mesa as a laboratory for their anti-labor, anti-pension agenda.

Public safety employees are not the enemy. Pension reform should be managed at the state level (a process that has already begun), not unilaterally at the local level. Yes, we do need to balance the books and live within our means, but total war on organized labor serves no one, especially not the community.

Given our economic situation, cost-cutting is necessary, but this should be done carefully with great emphasis on preserving the most critical assets. Perhaps the council majority could seek the advice of the department heads about how to most effectively meet the budget requirements. Perhaps they could work with the public safety employee groups to find mutually beneficial solutions to the financial challenges we confront.

CLAY G. EPPERSON is a retired police officer and Costa Mesa resident