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Mayoral race turns attention to public safety

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Relative to cities of its size, San Diego is a safe place. Violent crime is low compared to virtually any other large city in America.

As a simplified comparison, San Diego last year had 3.89 violent crimes for every 1,000 residents while San Antonio, the closest city in population, had 5.17 such incidents for every 1,000 residents. Baltimore, a smaller city with a reputation as being unsafe, had 14.6 violent crimes for every 1,000 residents.

So maybe it isn’t a surprise that the San Diego mayoral race hasn’t included much discussion on public safety.

But, if you live in a neighborhood in which gang activity is a fact of life, where the citywide crime rate isn’t reflective of what you see — Skyline, Lincoln Park or Otay Mesa, for instance — you might wonder why the two men competing to run the city have spent so much time talking about a new Chargers stadium, the publisher of the city’s largest newspaper or an endorsement from Irwin Jacobs.

The two candidates will turn their attention to public safety-related issues during a Wednesday debate co-sponsored by the San Diego Police Officers Association and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. The debate can be live-streamed at 11 a.m. on the taxpayers association’s website, and 10News will broadcast it at 9 p.m. on Oct. 11.

When public safety has been discussed in the mayoral race, it’s been as one piece of a more general promise to increase city service levels.

There’s been only passing discussion of the fact that violent crime increased 12.6 percent in the first five months of the year. (A recent Voice of San Diego article, however, pointed out that the five-year period in 2011 serving as a baseline comparison had one of the lowest levels of crime in recent years).

The San Diego Police Department’s five-year plan, brought before City Council this summer, attributes the rise to years of cuts to the city’s police department. While crime had been on a steady decline in recent years, the increase to start 2012 is a sign that cuts have finally taken a toll, according to the report. Response times for priority calls also increased from 2010 to 2011.

The SDPD had 1,969 budgeted positions in the just-completed fiscal year, but only 1,821 actual sworn officers, according to the report. The number of budgeted officers was down 6.5 percent, and the number of actual officers was down 4.7 percent, from 2007.

The five-year plan sets the goal of restoring the department to 2009 service levels by 2018, a path of hiring that will cost the city roughly $11 million in each of the next five years.

And while the voter-approved pension reform measure Proposition B promises large savings over the next 30 years, it’s expected to increase costs substantially in the short term. Together with an increased payment to the city’s retirement system based on poor investment performance, accelerated pension payments directly resulting from Prop. B next year are expected to stick the city with a roughly $35 million tab.

That’ll make finding the $11 million to support the hiring plan that much harder.

In total, the five-year plan would mean hiring 158 sworn officers and 100 civilian staffers, increasing helicopter fly-over ability, adding 15 canine teams, and purchasing new vehicles, gear and equipment.

Both Republican Councilman Carl DeMaio and Democratic Rep. Bob Filner say they fully support the department’s five-year plan, though both are soft on specifics when asked where the money to implement it will come from.

When it comes to finding the needed funds, both candidates fall on promised savings from familiar sources: Filner promises favorable labor contracts from unions given his positive relationships with them, while DeMaio leans on funds from managed competition, pension reform and identifying efficiencies in the department.

Filner — who this week secured the endorsement of the city’s fire department — said one of his first actions as mayor would be to ask the City Council to approve the SDPD’s five-year plan.

DeMaio rejected the idea that the race hasn’t been focused on public safety, and says he’s the only candidate to have put forward a budget plan that would free up the money needed to get the police department focused once again on community policing.

“When I talk fiscal reform — pensions, managed competition and other efficiencies — it’s to get back the things we lost, like clean and safe schools, high-quality infrastructure and neighborhood services,” he said.

That’s a common sentiment from DeMaio in debates and on the stump. Implementing his reform agenda, he says, will free up money in the city’s budget for all the things people want to see the city do.

Likewise, DeMaio consistently says he’ll lower the cost of government by isolating areas for increased efficiency. He says he’ll do so in the police department by targeting dated hardware and fostering crime lab collaboration between the city police and the sheriff’s department.

“The police department will keep every dollar,” he said. “Any savings we’re able to find in the department we’ll reinvest in other areas.”

Filner said he’ll prioritize public safety funding from every additional revenue source that flows to the city, such as the $27 million settlement the city received from San Diego Gas & Electric or any savings materializing from Prop. B’s pensionable pay freeze or the pension caps he’s promised for management-level employees.

“I oppose a newly expanded Tourism Marketing District (TMD) because it is a tax without a public vote, and puts downtown special interests in charge of $30 million of public funds on an annual basis," Filner said.

"However, should [the] method of levy be upheld in courts, I will allocate half the funds to public safety, which will result in an infusion of at least $15 million to police, fire and lifeguard services annually,” Filner wrote in an email. “I will ensure the proposal complies with any court ruling on Proposition 26,” the California ballot initiative declaring all fees and tax increases must receive a two-thirds legislative approval. *

The expansion of the TMD isn't facing a court challenge, but a spokesperson for Filner said a court challenge facing a different tax increase-- one that would pay for a $520 million convension center expansion-- would endanger the TMD funding as well.

A spokesman in Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office said Filner’s plan to use the tax revenue for public safety is legally impossible.

But the city’s trouble with increasing its sworn officer rolls isn’t driven entirely by the lack of available funds. The SDPD is also having a difficult time retaining officers who are leaving for other Southern California departments.

On average, eight officers are leaving the department each month.

Assuming the current baseline of four academies per year, with 25 officers per academy, the city is essentially breaking even with its current hiring plan. Even if the academy sizes were increased to 30 recruits, it would take until 2019 to reach the department's 1,969 budgeted positions.

“Here is what the ‘cut, cut, cut’ mantra has done to America’s finest police force,” Filner said, attributing the problem to the loss of four recruiting classes following the defeat of Proposition D (led by DeMaio), inadequate sergeant-to-officer ratios, and cuts to civilian staff, including 22 investigative aids, that led to increased administrative requirements for sworn officers.

DeMaio, meanwhile, proposes not only retention bonuses for officers, but also recruitment incentives to bring back officers who’ve left in recent years.

“Because we were first to deal with the pension problem, we’ll be in a position to hire while others are laying officers off,” he said. “Cities and counties declaring bankruptcy creates uncertainty, while we have certainty thanks to pension savings.”

Fulfilling the department’s five-year plan — adding 20 civilian positions and 32 sworn officers each year — would allow the department to restore officer time spent on so-called “proactive policing,” wherein officers are engaged in communities, rather than reacting to 9-1-1 calls. Officers currently spend 26 percent of their time on such activities, while the plan envisions that number rising to 40 percent.

DeMaio said spending more time on proactive policing is the best way to address this year’s increase in violent crime, rather than hoping it’s merely a statistical anomaly.

“I want to implement a number of forward-thinking issues to deal with gang violence, and conditions of schools for clean and safe schools,” he said. “I don’t believe kids learn in intimidating environments.”

Filner, after touting his record of introducing community walking patrols and citizen graffiti patrols, called himself an advocate of community policing.

In the 2010 mid-year budget review, the SDPD suffered some of its most drastic cuts. The department’s mounted and harbor units were eliminated, canine units were reduced, the availability of the Airborne Law Enforcement unit was cut by 40 percent, and 12 compliance officer, 22 investigative aide and 49 officer positions were cut.

Filner pointed to those 49 officers, “who served as community liaisons and coalition builders,” as evidence that the city is no longer focused on proactive policing.

“The city has moved from ‘community policing’ to ‘keep-your-fingers-crossed policing,’” he said. “As mayor, I will rededicate our resources to effective community policing.”

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Filner intended to use half of the funding from a recently passed tax to fund the convention center expansion on public safety, rather than the similar tax that extends the Tourism Marketing District. We regret the error.

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