By Justin Swanson | LB Indy
Laguna Beach’s police department intends to continue its foot patrols of downtown streets and study the effect of the increased police presence since April, the police chief informed the City Council on Tuesday.
The re-deployment of patrol officers to downtown, however, drew the rebuke of the police union president, who claimed crime is rising elsewhere in the city.
The council also was asked to consider increasing the number of hours social workers spend addressing needs of the homeless and mentally ill in town.
Councilman Steve Dicterow said he and Mayor Kelly Boyd, City Manager John Pietig and Police Chief Paul Workman would form a subcommittee intended to discuss refining the police presence in the downtown area. Dicterow said he believes progress has been made so far, though crime statistics have yet to be quantified and reviewed.
Captain Darin Lenyi named the specific steps by the department to make its presence more visible.
Nevertheless, Detective Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association, criticized the downtown foot patrol’s impact on the department as a whole, which he says siphons officers away from patrolling other areas in the city.
Bammer cited a nine per cent increase in property crimes and a 58 percent increase in car theft citywide as of July 15 compared to 2012, though that contradicted the view of downtown merchants, who lack statistics but cited their own anecdotal experience.
“I think the chief would agree with me this is no permanent fix,” Bammer said. Currently five to six officers pick up overtime as they fill in shifts for the foot patrol, which at times has included himself. He contends that the council should move to hire more sworn staff rather than over-extend existing resources and to assign someone specifically to the task.
Bammer asked the council to consider partnering with social services workers to aid the homeless and mentally ill with their needs. He stresses that it is not just the homeless that occupy the attention of officers. Mental illness episodes and suicide attempts, Bammer says, require finesse a social worker can provide.
Before the council finished voting to approve Chief Paul Workman’s status report, Councilwoman Toni Iseman spoke up. “Unless I’m missing something, we’re really not making a change,” she said. “I think we need to make a change.”
Clearly struck by Bammer’s constructive criticism, Iseman bemoaned the unintended consequences of the foot patrol. “If nobody’s in the neighborhood, it’s a good place for crime to happen,” she said, adding she would like to see the hiring of more officers.
Iseman also took up Bammer’s suggestion about social work, proposing that Laguna Beach split the cost of underwriting a case-worker with the city of Dana Point for 20 hours per week, instead of the current four to six hours now funded, Mayor Boyd estimated.
Dicterow, while agreeing with Iseman’s sentiments, said police enforcement and improvements in their presence downtown were in their beginning stages.
“The first step is reallocation,” Dicterow said. “We will see if we can do the things we want with what we have. If we fail, we add to our resources.”
The downtown foot patrol has already won over some business owners. Heidi Miller, Laguna resident and owner
of Tight Assets and the World News Stand, says she has seen a decrease in theft. “This is the first summer I don’t have to look up and down at a customer to see if they’re going to steal something,” Miller said.
David Rubel, owner of Fredric H. Rubel Jewelers on Forest Avenue, says, “I just like the fact that they’re visible. Rubel believes downtown police foot patrols serve as a deterrent to crime.
Afterwards, Bammer said he is optimistic the subcommittee will help address questions raised during the council’s discussion.
The council approved the review and further actions 4-0. Bob Whalen was absent.
Separately, the council rejected a proposed ban on e-cigarettes, with members saying there was not enough evidence that emitted vapor was significantly harmful. City Manager John Pietig proposed the ban. Proponents of the e-cigarettes pointed out that the latest FDA findings on the smoking devices identified only trace amounts of harmful chemicals.
In addition, several Emerald Bay residents appealed to the City Council to intervene in a project initiated by the gated community’s service district to install a traffic signal outside the main entrance. Correspondence from the service district was the most recent catalyst. Mayor Boyd explained that he as well as City Manager John Pietig met with Caltrans and the district’s main gate executive committee to discuss proposed improvements to traffic lanes at the entrance as well as improvements to the guard shack.
“We made it clear we had no interest in a traffic signal,” Boyd said.