In her first official request as the city’s chief of police, Laura Farinella asked the City Council for more full-time police officers, a plea made by the police union for years.
Even though certain crimes decreased in 2015 compared to five years ago, Farinella said two more officers are needed due to an increase in calls for assistance, more traffic and more people, not necessarily more crime. Laguna is becoming a year-round tourist destination with 6 million visitors annually, she said in a special meeting Tuesday, March 22.
High occupancy in hotels and resorts like the Montage, summer-like weather, and new housing in the Newport Coast and surrounding cities contributed to a 22 percent increase in calls for police service over two years, she said. Nearby Irvine grew by 11,000 residents last year, she said, making it the fastest growing city in California.
With council members teetering on granting a third full-time officer to understudy with community outreach Officer Jason Farris, who works with homeless individuals, City Manager John Pietig pulled in the reins.
“Before you move ahead and spend all the money,” Pietig said an upcoming budget review includes requests by other department for more staff, and a new cultural arts plan would also tap city revenue. The arts plan is scheduled for review by the council next Tuesday, March 29.
“While we’re all enamored with public safety and believe that’s one of the core missions,” he said, “there are other things that make our community great and enhance our quality of life.”
The council unanimously granted Farinella’s requests, based on $300,000 allotted at the mid-year budget review, adding five more positions to the current full-time staff of 87 employees, including 49 sworn officers. She was asked to return in a month with a “blue-sky wish list” for the council to consider.
Farinella sought two more full-time sworn officers for the busiest downtown patrol, one more dispatcher, two full-time beach patrol officers and the reassignment of a records clerk and parking services officer to supervisorial positions.
Larry Bammer, vice president of the police employees’ union and a foot-patrol officer, said Farinella’s requests missed the mark. Union members were “stunned” that Farinella’s year-long analysis didn’t ask for more, Bammer said. Hiring more beach patrol officers, he said, was “a luxury when our first-line officers are not fully staffed. We don’t have a narcotics detective, yet we’re going to get beach patrol to direct traffic.”
Another police officer, Darin Germaine, said several positions are missing or skewed. “Beach patrol officers can’t do everything an officer can do, although an officer can do everything a beach patrol officer is assigned to do.”
Zack Martinez, president of the police association, said Wednesday that there are four full-time police officers and one supervisor on duty at any given time. “Our numbers are so low,” he said, “we need more police officers here.”
Farinella submitted her three-year strategic plan after what she termed a full review of the police department. What she found was overloaded, double-duty, cross-over positions that need sorting out and more support.
Drunk-driving citations have decreased, she said, due to increased efforts by the police department’s “Know Your Limits” public-education campaign and partnering with Uber, a private transportation service. Foot patrol officers, a new downtown beat revived in 2013, are also talking with bar patrons, often suggesting they call a ride service instead of driving home.
“Lately, when we’ve been having DUI checkpoints, we’re not seeing as many people drunk coming through,” Farinella told the council. “We’re seeing Uber, Uber, taxi, taxi, Uber, Uber, which is what we want.”
Assault and battery incidents also saw a “big drop,” she said, due to foot-patrol officers visiting bars downtown, particularly on weekend nights.
Assuming budget was not an issue, Mayor Steve Dicterow, an outspoken police advocate, asked Farinella for a wish list. She said the department could use another full-time officer rather than having officers work overtime shifts to cover sick days for other officers.
Two full-time officers are needed for downtown foot patrol, the report stated, because officers now perform this service during off-hours, not as part of their regular duties, at a cost of $46,500 in overtime. Two new officers will cost $194,000 minus the overtime.
Calls for service come in 24-hours a day from 911 or the department’s business line, which is currently answered by the records’ staff, according to the report. All calls need to be answered by dispatch, said Farinella. The department now employs 10 dispatchers.
The three-cell jail and sobriety tank that can hold up to 15 people is also understaffed, Farinella said. The jail is operated by part-time jailers and managed by a patrol sergeant, who is also responsible for policing the downtown-Main Beach area, she said. Having part-time jailers, she stated, does not comply with state laws, which require full-time supervision. A newly defined position, with responsibilities as a records specialist and jail supervisor, will fill the bill at no cost, according to the report.