Dozens rally in support of police

At least 60 people rallied outside Costa Mesa City Hall on Tuesday night, holding signs that read "Crime is up. Got cops?" and "Support police, not political agendas."

The rally, organized by the grass-roots group Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, also known as CM4RG, aimed to support police and raise awareness for what members see as a looming public safety crisis, said the group's president, Robin Leffler.

"What we're really really concerned about is safety for our neighbors and safety for ourselves," Leffler said.

She cited Costa Mesa crime rate, which rose in 2012, and City Council decisions to reduce police staffing.

"I think it's been simmering for a really long time," she said. "We've been very aware that our police force has been decimated."

In June, statistics released by the FBI showed that Costa Mesa was one of the few Orange County cities that saw an increase in violent crime during 2012 in addition to a relatively common increase in property crime.

An uptick in rapes and assaults in the city caused a 9.9% increase in the violent crime category compared with 2011, according to the FBI's numbers.

At the time, a police official said it would be speculative to attribute the bump to reduced staffing levels at the department and instead said California's prisoner realignment could be a factor. Realignment is intended to ease prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for some inmates from state prisons to the county level.

Katie Arthur, an 18-year Eastside resident, said the crime rate became personal as she saw neighbors homes broken into.

"I'm sure it's a complicated issue, but one factor without question has to do with the number of police that we have on the street and the fact that we're having difficulty in hiring good candidates, because it's such a caustic environment that good candidates would probably prefer to go work for other cities," she said.

Arthur was referring to a Daily Pilot report about police sources who were worried that heated politics in Costa Mesa has made finding qualified candidates more difficult.

CM4RG members have frequently criticized the City Council majority, which includes Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, and many protesters put the blame at their feet Tuesday.

"You have individuals with an agenda that, I think in their heart, they believe may be best for the city, but we can see some negative unintended consequences," said Joy Williams, a 53-year Costa Mesa resident.

The council majority has presided over cuts within the Police Department in an effort to reduce costs.

In February 2011, a consultant recommended reducing officer staffing from 143 full-time positions to 136.

The council pushed for an even lower number. The most recent city budget includes 132 police officers.

As of July this year, the department's actual staffing stood at 120 officers, 12 below the authorized level.

A hiring freeze had prevented the department from adding officers until April, when the city announced it was looking for 10 full-time and 10 reserve officers.

Opposing council members and residents have called staffing levels approved by the council majority arbitrary.

Mensinger and Righeimer, however, say only a vocal minority opposes the changes.

Mensinger previously said he believes that most of the department's employees understand that changes must be made to keep employee compensation and pension costs sustainable.

The two elected officials have since sued Costa Mesa's police union and its former law firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir.

Righeimer and Mensinger say they were targets of intimidation and harassment, mostly stemming from the night a private investigator followed the mayor and called police claiming Righeimer was driving drunk, an allegation of which he was immediately cleared when an officer responded to his house.

The police association and the law firm — which is known for aggressive tactics while representing police and had hired the private investigator in the past — both denied any involvement in the incident.

One sign at Tuesday's rally called on the councilmen to "Stop the vindictive lawsuit."

But Righeimer and Mensinger were not without supporters at the rally.

A few members of the Newport Mesa Tea Party Patriots passed out fliers praising the council's ability to pass balanced budgets and fund investments in infrastructure.

"We're just thanking the City Council for what they're doing," said founder and Costa Mesa resident Tom Pollitt.

In Pollitt's view, the lawsuit is a challenge to powerful unions and the law firm, not acrimony toward the Police Department — something the lawsuit itself states.

"My feeling on the lawsuit is Jim Righeimer is a hero," he said.

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