Spotlight hits downtown

Community members, city discuss added police patrols

Katie Simmons (right) talks emotionally about an incident involving her daughter in front of a crowd outside the City Council chambers.

Katie Simmons (right) talks emotionally about an incident involving her daughter in front of a crowd outside the City Council chambers.

PHOTO by Melissa Daugherty

On Aug. 1, Katie Simmons got a wakeup call she never expected. Her 9-year-old daughter was sitting in her dad’s car when a 19-year-old man jumped in and took the wheel. Luckily her daughter was able to escape before the man drove off, but the incident is still burned into Simmons’ mind.

“That was the moment when my personal life intersected with my professional life,” said Simmons, who serves as president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce and has worked closely with the Clean and Safe Chico program. “I need hope and the community needs hope. If we don’t do this together we won’t be successful.”

Simmons was speaking in front of a large group of people outside the Chico City Council chambers Monday (Oct. 7) during a press conference to announce a policing plan for the downtown area. She was joined by Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl, City Manager Mark Orme, Clean and Safe Chico representative Jovanni Tricerri and Downtown Chico Business Association President Melanie Bassett. Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle was also on hand, but did not speak before the crowd.

Essentially, the message conveyed Monday was that a group of concerned citizens—members of the Clean and Safe Chico group, along with the Chamber and DCBA—had gotten together and created a plan to combat the public safety issues primarily caused by transients in the downtown area. They were careful to describe “transients” as not Chico’s homeless, but transplants who’ve moved in and don’t respect the area. That plan started out as part of a presentation before the Chico City Council in June. It includes increased patrols—by foot or bicycle—of downtown, but few other details were outlined.

In fact, the lack of details seemed to present the greatest problem with the press conference. Aside from the fact that they have a plan to offer overtime shifts to cover downtown and that it might necessitate negotiations with the Chico Police Officers’ Association, the Chico police union, little else was divulged. (Even then, in speaking with individuals after the meeting, specifics on everything from shift length to cost differed from one person to the next.)

“The community has an opportunity to build up our city instead of tearing it down,” Tricerri said. “Our police force is strained. So we came up with this police staffing plan and the City Council has approved it.”

At least one member of the public—Rich Hartman, an officer and vice president of the CPOA—voiced concerns about the plan.

“The issue is we don’t have the staff to staff our patrol shifts,” he said after the conference. “We’re already forcing people to come in to fill shifts through mandatory overtime. They offered overtime to work the downtown area and no one signed up.”

That’s true, according to Lt. Mike O’Brien. The additional overtime shifts, which are shorter than the normal 10-hour overtime slots (no one would confirm how long the downtown shifts are), were posted last week. As things are now, the department is about 20 officers short of where it would like to be. Many officers work voluntary overtime and, starting Oct. 1, some of those shifts were deemed mandatory to maintain service levels throughout the city.

“There’s an abundance of overtime in general because whenever your staffing levels are at the level they’re at now for us—they’re razor thin—you have a lot of people working overtime already to make ends meet,” O’Brien said by phone. “We needed to create mandatory overtime to ensure we have basic coverage for the most basic function of a police department, the patrol shift.”

So adding overtime shifts to cover the downtown might sound great in theory, but it will be difficult to pull off in practice, Hartman argued.

“We’re in week one of the downtown stuff and no one has signed up yet,” confirmed Chris Constantin, assistant city manager. “But with the timing, right after mandatory overtime started, we need to give it a few weeks.”

There’s been some talk of offering incentives to pick up the downtown patrols, including double overtime and making the shifts mandatory. In fact, Gruendl mentioned double overtime as a viable option to fill those shifts.

“We’re looking at different levels of overtime,” Gruendl said. “The most expensive, and beneficial to the employee, is double overtime.”

But both of those options are premature and would require action by council as well as an agreement with the CPOA, Constantin said.

“We will consider any and all options to make it work, but we will follow legal processes,” he said.

As far as police staffing is concerned, three officer positions were posted last week. O’Brien noted that while some officers have been lost to other agencies, there are five students in the academy and two completing field training.

The press conference was just the beginning of what many there, including the Chamber’s Simmons, hope will become a bigger community dialogue about how to address public safety in Chico, particularly downtown.

“We’re all on a mission of some sort,” Simmons said. “I’m on a mission for the business community, but I’m also a mom on a mission.”