Review use of the force

Part of being a police chief is being a politician. Funding levels and the department’s reputation depend on it. That’s why it was so jarring when Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty went before the City Council’s Finance Committee last week and made a presentation that went over like a root-rotted oak.

Instructed to reduce expenses by 7.5 percent to help bridge the city’s budget gap, department heads came forward with different options. Interim Fire Chief Keith Carter, for instance, axed overtime. He earned praise for his plan.

Hagerty didn’t. His proposal left overtime alone; it cut jobs. Eight vacant positions will go unfilled: six officers, two community service officers. Completing the $1.6 million cut will cost another six officers, including a sergeant, plus a part-timer (semi-retired Sgt. Dave Barrow, the public information officer).

What drew criticism—most vocally and notably from Councilman Scott Gruendl—was the corresponding impact on some programs that the council and citizenry consider priorities. Downtown weekend team? Gone. Downtown bike officer? Gone. Traffic enforcement? Scaled back.

“We thought we’d gain some points for trying to split the baby,” Hagerty said—meaning he and his captains, Mike Maloney and John Rucker, anticipated a better reaction by playing Solomon and divvying up the unpleasantness.

Bad read—that’s not how the wind was blowing. Another questionable tactic: floating a public-safety tax in a recession.

I sat down with Hagerty Tuesday morning. He had some explanations.

• The Fire Department could cut overtime because it’s been operating at “100 percent backfill” (calling in a replacement for each absent firefighter rather than going short-staffed).

• The cuts come as Chico PD finally nears staffing levels recommended by a consultant three years ago.

• The city has grown during his five-year tenure, as the call load.

• The last time Chico lost officers, crime rates gradually climbed and citizens complained about lost services, such as traffic cops to curb dangerous speeding.

• The patrol plan—revamped a couple years ago—optimizes the number of officers at peak times. “I don’t know of a better deployment model,” Hagerty said, “certainly not one that would save $1.6 million.”

That may be. Then again, it might not be. No offense, I told him, but Chico PD collates crime statistics and analyzes its dispatches. How do we know this is the best M.O.?

“We’re not dyed in the wool in anything we do,” the chief replied. “If there’s a better way to do it, tell us.”

Fair enough. So I have a proposal of my own:

Open up the department to a police panel.

Grant ’em unfettered access to call logs, records and blunt officers like Rucker. Let ’em make their own assessment of deployments, staffing, productivity, etc.

I’d go with five people who know what they’re looking for and what they’re looking at.

Andy Holcombe is mayor and a lawyer, Tom Nickell a retired CHP officer—they’d represent the City Council. City Manager Dave Burkland also needs to be there. The other two: law enforcement professionals without a “dog in the hunt” (on par with Mike Dunbaugh, the former Chico police chief who’s running Butte College’s police and fire academy).

They may well find Hagerty is correct—fantastic. If there happens to be “a better way,” the chief is open to suggestions. Either way, the assumption upon which all the plans are built will have been vetted.

I’m no politician, but I bet that’d fly in council chambers.