Talkin’ cops

Can Chico afford to significantly increase the police department’s staffing?

I’ve been accused a few times of being a cop hater by people who have confused my criticism of the unprofessional behavior of certain leaders of the Chico Police Officers’ Association (and instances of excessive force by individual officers) a few years back with disdain for law enforcement in general.

One of my relatives is a retired Chico officer. He and several of his old-school colleagues whom I’ve interviewed over the 17 years I’ve been a reporter in this town know me better than that. In fact, I ran into one such retiree a few years ago, and he told me that 1) he agreed that the police union’s new spokesmen were attempting to hold the city hostage during contract negotiations by getting the public riled up about how Chico was going to hell in a handbasket, and 2) some of the younger officers were of the instant-gratification mentality. “They want their toys,” he told me.

It infuriated many CN&R readers that, while Chico was deep in the red and had just avoided bankruptcy during the Great Recession, the CPOA’s leaders were more concerned about shaking down the city. It further infuriated them that five of the seven City Council members voted shortly thereafter to approve a three-year contract that cost the city an additional $1.5 million yet did not put any additional officers on the streets.

The department was sorely understaffed at that time, with 64 sworn officers. Then-Chief Kirk Trostle said the CPD needed at least 83 to adequately service the city.

It’s been roughly two years since then, and the economy has improved greatly, which has allowed the department to do a lot of hiring. According to Chief Mike O’Brien’s recent staff report on CPD, the agency has an allocation to pay for 92 sworn officers. That number currently includes six who are in training, one in the academy, one who’s injured and nearing retirement, and two open positions. By mid-year, all posts should be filled, O’Brien estimated.

In short, the department is in much better shape today. That’s great for the community.

Now there’s talk about bumping the staffing up incrementally to 105 officers, as per the suggestion of the nonbinding Police Staffing Plan that community members, business leaders and city personnel crafted a few years ago. My question: Can the city afford it? O’Brien’s report notes that each entry-level officer costs the city just under $100,000 in salary and benefits. Keep in mind that the Chico Fire Department is asking for money to preserve some of its formerly grant-funded positions. Where’s that discussion?

With employee costs rising 7 percent to 8 percent each year, and lacking pension reform or a miraculous surge in local retail spending (neither will happen), the city cannot sustain significantly higher staffing levels.

Don’t be surprised when talk of a sales tax devoted to public safety resurfaces. More on that in the future, I’m certain.

In closing, I want to give a shout out to CPD Officers Cameron Kovacs and Winston Capucion—along with the other officers I didn’t speak with—who responded to CN&R last week when I called 911 after hearing a belligerent and unstable man who’d hidden himself overnight in a suite in our building. We were impressed with their response time (a few minutes at most) and ability to remove the man peacefully. Thank you, officers.