Three intoxicated teens took a joy ride on a recent Friday night up to Laguna Beach’s Top of the World neighborhood. Their 10 p.m. outing went downhill in more ways than one. The driver lost control on Park Avenue and flipped the vehicle, which slid 250 feet.
Fortunately, no motorist was coming in the other direction, said Council member Steve Dicterow, who was on a ride along in a patrol car called to the scene.
Even so, the accident sapped the police department’s manpower, drawing in officers to deal with a serious injury, secure the scene, gather evidence, take pictures and interview the three teenagers, who each told a different story.
The rollover left only one other vehicle on active patrol when two incidents came in over the radio – one downtown and one in Three Arch Bay. “How is one remaining car going to be in two places at once?” Dicterow asked.
With renewed appreciation for the challenge facing Laguna’s 47-officer police department, Dicterow has now reversed his stance favoring the reallocation of resources for a downtown foot patrol. Part time patrols were revived in April and welcomed by merchants, though police have yet to quantify the patrol’s impact on crime.
Now, Dicterow, who sought but did not receive the police association’s endorsement during his campaign, sees that downtown patrols could stretch the workforce too thin. A part time bike patrol might be a partial solution, he said, since officers could reach their vehicles quickly if called for back up where foot patrol officers could not.
As a measure of how far he’s come, in June Dicterow made a passionate plea for a daily patrol downtown from noon to 8 p.m., and he reiterated that position earlier this month when police Chief Paul Workman briefed the City Council on the downtown initiative.
At the time, Detective Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees Association, criticized the foot patrol for siphoning officers from other parts of the city where he says they were sorely needed. And his entreaty to hire more sworn staff, rather than over-extending existing resources, hit home with council member Toni Iseman. She worried about increased crime in areas patrolled less due to the foot patrol assignments downtown.
Earlier this month, Dicterow still wanted to move forward with the reallocation of personnel for downtown, while gauging its effectiveness. “We will see if we can do the things we want with what we have,” he said. “If we fail, we add to our resources.”
It took one ride along with Corporal Cota from 5:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 16, for Dicterow to see that failure. “I’ve changed my mind,” he announced last week.
The 10.5 hours spent alongside Cota, perpetually responding to incident calls, sometimes life-threatening and usually involving visitors mixed up with drugs or alcohol, convinced Dicterow that “our resources are insufficient to deal with what’s going on” and eroded his passion for a downtown foot patrol.
Captain Jason Kravetz, serving as interim chief during Workman’s absence, said the night Dicterow described was fairly typical of a summer weekend evening. The level of activity “dramatically increases” between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and will also spike in winter months on warm weekends and holidays when visitors swarm hotels, restaurants and beaches and generate more calls for service, Kravetz said. For example, police received 1,063 calls for service Aug. 8-5, almost 45 percent more than the 738 calls received Feb. 8-15.
The department does hire extra staff in summer months to help with beach patrols, traffic and parking services, but not sworn officers, said Kravetz.
“For me to be talking about the allocation of resources for the police department,” Dicterow said, “I had to be out there with them to understand what their experience is like.”
And it wasn’t just the accident scene. Dicterow cited numerous incidents where repercussions might have been grave if officers hadn’t shown up. “My biggest impression was that everyone out there is under tremendous pressure and they are reacting at all times,” he said. “Anyone who wants to debate me should do a ride along first,” he added.
As might be expected, Bammer appreciates Dicterow’s newfound insights about the department’s personnel constraints. Shifting resources downtown requires more staff if the community wants to maintain current levels of service elsewhere, he reiterated. The department needs a sworn staff of 50 officers, Bammer said.
Yet, even if a staff increase were approved, filling it may not be easy. In the last 11 months of testing, interviewing and background checks on applicants for two vacancies, the department has only successfully filled one position, Bammer said. He attributes the city’s difficulty attracting qualified candidates to competition from other cities such as Orange, Anaheim and Irvine that offer better pay and benefits.
Dicterow plans to continue discussions in the subcommittee formed with Mayor Kelly Boyd, Workman and City Manager John Pieitig to explore options for policing, since, as his ride along illustrated, “You can’t ask a department to do what we are asking them to do with the resources that we currently have.”