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After a debate on need, Newport Beach likely to add one more police officer

After a debate on need, Newport Beach likely to add one more police officer
A Newport Beach police officer writes a ticket on the ocean-facing boardwalk. As part of their budget discussion this week, City Council members debated whether to bring additional officers on board. (File Photo)

The Newport Beach Police Department could see its ranks increase by one officer, despite a lack of consensus from the City Council.

This year, the department had 147 budgeted officer positions and filled all but one of those slots. That budgeted staffing level has been flat for the last two years and was initially expected to remain unchanged next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

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That was until Mayor Diane Dixon made a strong pitch Tuesday for an addition. The goal was to get two new officers — costing about $380,000 for salary, benefits and equipment — approved before the council voted on the city’s overall $400-million budget.

In the end, the council unanimously approved the spending plan but held off for now on adding to the department’s ranks.

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Dixon used a passel of crime statistics to demonstrate why she feels Newport needs more law enforcement coverage.

In 2018, the city saw 126 violent crimes and 2,118 property crimes. So far this year, there have been 43 violent crimes and 802 property crimes.

Balboa Peninsula, Newport’s tourism epicenter, has 400% more crime than the citywide average.

Dixon asked if that’s been normalized, then answered her own question when she said worried residents want more police coverage.

Newport’s current staffing, she added, means there are roughly 1.7 police officers per 1,000 people in the low-tourism season, but only 0.5 officers per 1,000 people — resident or visitor — during the summer peak. Newport’s year-round population is about 89,000 people, but that can swell to 200,000 more during the high season, she said.

Dixon said police are shifting more of their efforts to interacting with homeless and mentally ill people and responding to disturbances created by increased vacation rentals, but the city has fewer officers than it did 10 years ago, when it funded 149 positions.

“We are pouring 10 pounds of public safety needs into a 2-pound bag of police services,” which is unfair to the department, Dixon said.

The city of Newport Beach had budgeted for 147 police officers this year, slightly down from the 149 authorized in 2009.
The city of Newport Beach had budgeted for 147 police officers this year, slightly down from the 149 authorized in 2009. (File Photo)

Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill was the strongest voice of opposition to the proposal, saying that the existence of unfilled positions and longer-view crime and traffic safety trends show that spending more on police isn’t warranted.

Between 2013 and 2018, overall serious crime dropped by about 2% citywide and 21% on the Peninsula, Police Chief Jon Lewis confirmed.

Traffic-related calls increased about 4% between 2014 and last year, from 4,530 to 4,716. However, reported collisions dropped roughly 7% over that same period, from 942 to 880, and injuries fell almost 4%, from 642 to 618.

“There is no number, not a single numerical justification for adding more budgeted positions when we have not filled those positions, and [we are] seeing the crime statistics going down,” O’Neill said.

If police officials thought they needed more boots on the ground, they would put them there, he added. But, after hiring 12 officers since 2017 — when 146 positions were budgeted but only 134 were filled — and still having an open slot on paper, the department isn’t showing urgency.

“We don’t need to budget more people in a department that hasn’t actually filled all [its] positions yet,” O’Neill said. “And, if the question is allocation of resources, I trust our police chief to make that decision far more than I trust anyone up on the dais, certainly including myself.”

He moved to accept the city’s overall budget without any new officers. The vote failed, with Dixon and council members Joy Brenner, Jeff Herdman and Kevin Muldoon opposed.

Traffic calls for service increased 4% between 2014 and last year, but reported collisions dropped 7% over that same time, according to the city.
Traffic calls for service increased 4% between 2014 and last year, but reported collisions dropped 7% over that same time, according to the city. (File Photo)

Dixon initially sought two additional hires — suggesting one beat officer and one traffic officer — to return to the city’s 2009 staffing level. Muldoon eventually brokered a compromise, agreeing with O’Neill’s assessment of crime and traffic figures but suggesting the addition of only one officer, hired and assigned at the police chief’s discretion.

Council members will decide whether to authorize the additional officer at their June 25 meeting.

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