Commentary: Safety begins at home: Clean up city's house

On Sept. 17, Costa Mesans for Responsible Government held a rally for public safety at City Hall.

We've been accused of having hidden motives, but the reasons for the rally are straightforward: To say a heartfelt thank you to Costa Mesa public safety employees, to highlight the critical need for more quality police officers, to put school resource officers (SROs) back in the schools for student safety and to emphasize how essential it is that the City Council majority support police recruiting by putting an end to the contentious, adversarial city environment that discourages good officers and may keep highly qualified candidates from applying.

The quality of public safety affects the community's quality of life. This is why we held the rally, nothing more and nothing less.

We believe it is incumbent on those entrusted with stewardship of the city to give the highest priority to public safety. The council majority seems out of touch with the day-to-day reality that Costa Mesans are living with deteriorating security.

Remember that the council majority reduced the number of sworn officers to a level their own consultant deemed lower than the minimum needed. The force shrank from 143 to 131. City revenue increased, but a hiring freeze caused staffing to drop even more. Today we have about 108 active officers, with more departures looming in the next nine months.

Keep in mind that it takes about 18 months to train and test new officers before they can work independently in the field. The hiring freeze was finally lifted in April, and recruiting began for 10 full-time and 10 reserve officers. We are a long way from getting the Police Department to the right staffing level.

Some people are very sensitive to any implied criticism of the council majority, but the majority must take responsibility for their actions. They would like to convince residents that decreasing the police force has nothing to do with the increase in crime. Yet crime rose 20% while patrol strength decreased nearly 30%. Safety deterioration correlates with the staffing decrease.

Of course it is a high priority that Costa Mesa maintain a balanced budget. Mayor Jim Righeimer said that balancing the budget is easy; the hard part is to select the right areas. Considering that crime is up in Costa Mesa, it seems his cuts were not in the right area.

"Crime is about who you attract to your city" is a phrase some council members like to use. It is not a good excuse for what they allowed to happen in Costa Mesa. Some motel occupants, transients and residents of rehab homes are a source of increased lawlessness.

Also, even before the anticipated wave of early-release prison parolees began to roll in, wise government would have planned for adequate protection. The council majority knows all this but doesn't seem to accept the reality that we need more police officers until these other issues are resolved.

Our schoolchildren lost out because of this lack of foresight. The highest priority should have been retaining school resource officers for their inhibiting effect on gang activity, especially with today's heightened concern about school safely.

Lastly, the working environment between the council majority and the police seems contentious, and the lawsuit has not helped matters. Council members Righeimer and Steve Mensinger may have a right to sue the Costa Mesa Police Officers Assn., but such action doesn't help recruitment or good relations.

For the sake of public safety, we hope these issues can be resolved quickly. Improve the city's working environment, restore SROs and make Costa Mesa the kind of place that can attract high-quality police officers.

ROBIN LEFFLER is president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government.

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