City Considers Disbanding Street Crimes Unit to Balance Budget

City staff might disband the Street Crimes Unit or have to lay off and cut hours to close an estimated $1.1 million budget gap.

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Facing an estimated budget shortfall of $1.1 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year, city staff are considering disbanding the ’s Street Crimes Unit to balance the budget.

The city staff’s budget proposal, which they presented in Monday’s City Council meeting, included several cuts that would spare their employees from lay offs and not take advantage of any one-time savings or reserves, like in previous years. One of those cuts included disbanding the Street Crimes Unit.

“You really can’t cut too much without cutting personnel,” City Manager Nancy Mackle said at the meeting. “At this point we can’t do it without having a reduction in services to the community.”

The Street Crimes Unit is currently staffed with one sergeant and three officers. Gang suppression and investigation, weapons and narcotics enforcement, human trafficking, public nuisance crimes (such as graffiti or alcohol violations) and prostitution stings all fall in the unit’s realm of responsibilities. The unit also assists with murder, kidnapping, rape and robbery investigations.

In the early part of the next fiscal year, two positions will open on the unit due to retirement of two of its officers. The preliminary budget proposes leaving these positions vacant and transferring the remaining officers to patrol, which would save the city $360,000.

Although patrol officers will still be providing similar services, the cut will result in longer response times to ongoing problems, such as gang activity, and a more reactive than proactive approach to these crimes, according to the staff report.

“We’ll survive, but we will have to be a little slower,” Police Chief Diana Bishop said. “Patrol is operating at its minimum. Our job is to answer 9-1-1 calls. If we can’t do that then we’re not serving our citizens.”

San Rafael residents’ concern over gang activity spiked last year

According to the Street Crimes Unit, San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood is home to many gang members from the 18th Street and the 13th Street gangs, known as the Sureños meaning “southerners.” The Sureños’ rival gang is the Norteños, or “northerners,” who traditionally wear red and have members in Terra Linda and Novato.

Grestle Park neighbor Hugo Landecker also noted during the meeting that the police department needs a more proactive plan to deal with the homeless.

“We have a homeless population that is creating a huge impact on our downtown businesses and parks,” he said.

Councilman Damon Connolly was not supportive of the proposal, noting that the police department needs to refill the position of a mental health officer who could assist with any disputes between neighbors and the homeless.

“Not only would we not be doing that in this move, we would reducing our proactive capability,” he said.

San Rafael has been dealing with large-scale budget deficits since 2008. The number of police officers went from 104 to 87 in the past four years, and this cut would result in a total of 85 full-time positions.

The Street Crimes Unit has been disbanded in the past and then reinstated after funds became available, according to the staff report.

Since there are no known retirements or staff vacancies in other departments, alternatives would include lay offs and cutting hours, according to Mackle.

Unlike last year, , this budget does not include borrowing any money.

“The good news is that we are not talking about terminating any current employees,” said Mayor Gary Phillips, who was supportive of the proposal and noted that the city is taking more steps toward pension reform.

“This is not an easy thing to put in place. But it is a balancing act,” he said.

The Council will not approve the budget until July, and staff will work with council members on any other potential alternatives until then.

“We need to make hard choices and if it’s not going to be the police department, then who is it going to be?” Councilman Andrew McCullough asked.

Sarah S. June 05, 2012 at 04:59 PM
If it keeps people from losing their jobs, do it. There are plenty of police units in San Rafael, they can try to incorporate the street crime unit into their patrols until the budget allows for them to keep it.
David Edmondson June 05, 2012 at 05:22 PM
What? No! The Street Crimes unit has economic dividends - people will avoid walking downtown if it's not safe, and so they'll shop for less (no window shopping means fewer impulse buys). Overall, keeping the unit will also make Novato and Terra Linda safer, meaning less pressure there. Lastly, preventative policing saves money by keeping people out of prison and helping people to channel their energy into more economic productive activities, whether digging holes or starting a business. Seriously, bad idea. If the city needs to cut back, it should cut back on areas without such direct economic impacts, otherwise you're just eating your seed corn.
Scott Smith June 05, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Normal foot patrols for crime prevention and PR are necessary for the business hub of San Rafael. Beef up patrols around the bus depot area and the canals residential area. Put up cameras and save police resources? There are plenty of good ideas and fund raising opportunities coming this summer - use them or find new management for the city & PD?


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