The politics of patrols

A bitter feud and outsider campaign cash make for a Citrus Heights election that will decide whether the Sheriff’s Department gets dumped

Citrus Heights council hopeful Jeannie Bruins says she doesn’t have a ‘very compelling reason’ to drop the Sheriff’s Department’s services.

Citrus Heights council hopeful Jeannie Bruins says she doesn’t have a ‘very compelling reason’ to drop the Sheriff’s Department’s services.

Photo by Larry Dalton

If there’s one guy Citrus Heights City Councilman Bret Daniels doesn’t like, it must be his old boss: Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas.

Daniels spent 12 years as a Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy, patrolling for many of those years in the Citrus Heights area. He also feuded publicly with the department when his application to become a school resource officer in the city was denied.

Daniels even ran for sheriff—twice. As a candidate, he was an outspoken critic of Blanas, but Daniels’ campaigns for the top spot fizzled. He came in a distant last as Blanas won by a landslide—twice.

Between those two bids, in 2000, the Sheriff’s Department fired Daniels, reportedly for lying in an internal-affairs investigation related to improper use of his authority while on personal business outside the state. Daniels has said the dismissal was politically motivated.

Now, Daniels is seeking another council term, and he’s running on his desire to end the city’s police-services contract with the Sheriff’s Department. Whether Daniels is motivated by vendetta—and he says he’s not—he isn’t the only one in Citrus Heights who’s leaning toward creating a police department.

Other candidates and city officials share Daniels’ view that the steadily increasing cost of the Sheriff’s Department contract—and its growing percentage of the city budget—means it’s time for a change. For months, a city consultant has been studying the feasibility of ending the contract, and it’s likely to be the major issue before the City Council next year.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department recently was ripped by county budget cuts, and losing this contract would hurt its bottom line more. So, the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association has been writing big checks to council candidates who are sympathetic to keeping the contract.

Or, as Daniels charged, “The DSA is trying to buy this election.”

Citrus Heights police officers look like any other cops. They drive big, white Ford Crown Victorias painted with black and orange stripes, a seven-pointed star and the word “POLICE” emblazoned on the side. Officers report to a police chief and wear blue uniforms that say “Citrus Heights Police” on the shoulder patch. But the officers’ badges say “Sheriff,” and the chief is actually a Sheriff’s Department captain.

When Citrus Heights became a city on January 1, 1997, the fledgling operation kept the same law-enforcement agency it always had used: the Sheriff’s Department. The city’s multi-million-dollar policing contract created a police department for Citrus Heights that was staffed by Sheriff’s Department deputies.

The contract is the city’s biggest expense, and the cost has been increasing almost every year. During the first year, the contract ate up 49 percent of the city’s general fund. This year, it’s up to 57 percent, or an increase of more than $1 million from last year for a total cost of $12.5 million.

Daniels and other candidates say that with the amount of money the city pays the Sheriff’s Department, the city would be better off forming its own police department—especially as costs continue to increase. The city’s comprehensive study on the issue is almost done but won’t be available until after the election. When the study is complete, the council will make the call on whether to keep the contract.

That’s why the makeup of the council is such an important aspect of next month’s elections. With seven candidates running for three of five seats, the contest could bring a new majority that wants to keep the contract, or one that wants to dump it.

Given that precarious balance of power, Daniels is unhappy that his former colleagues at the DSA are dumping money on a trio of council candidates and, he said, trying to influence what should be a local decision.

Law-enforcement service was one of the top issues behind the drive to incorporate because many residents felt the Sheriff’s Department didn’t provide enough patrol cars in Citrus Heights. Now, the city can set minimum policing levels in its contract.

Residents complained about hassles like graffiti and vandalism, said Citrus Heights Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jeannie Bruins, who co-chaired the incorporation campaign and is running for council this fall. Now, she says, the graffiti and vandalism are gone, and most residents are pleased with the service provided by the Sheriff’s Department, even if some don’t know the details of the city-county contract.

Bruins, one of three candidates backed by the DSA, said she’s undecided about sticking with the sheriff but skeptical about the change. “I’m not ready to have an in-house police department just for the sake of calling it our own,” said Bruins, who also boasts an endorsement by Blanas. “There’s a movement with some of our candidates to bring our police force in-house, and I’m not saying that’s not viable, but we have to have a very compelling reason to chuck what we have.”

Incumbent Bret Daniels, an ex-deputy, has some to offer.

Photo by Larry Dalton

The DSA also is backing incumbent James Shelby, president of the Sacramento Urban League, and planning commissioner Harry Pelliccione. Both say they’re happy with the Sheriff’s Department’s level of service now.

Shelby hasn’t decided which way he’ll go on a new department. Because crime is down, and the Sheriff’s Department’s service is good, “If the cost was equal, I don’t see any use in splitting,” he said. “Service is good. We’ve been able to reduce crime, reduce response times and have more visible police officers.” But, if costs keep rising, he added, “then we’ll have to look at other options.”

Pelliccione likes things the way they are, especially after the sparse patrolling the area got in its unincorporated days. “The policing we have now is much better than what we had under the county system, so I don’t see any reason to jeopardize that right now,” he said.

In addition to ex-deputy Daniels, three other council candidates are sympathetic to creating a new department. Some feel the police force has been less visible in the community in the five years since the city started contracting with the Sheriff’s Department.

Jayna Karpinsky-Costa, a planning commissioner and attorney-turned-veterinarian, said she’s waiting for the study but that the city keeps paying more for police who seem less visible in the community. “I think we should have more police,” she said. “We love our cops.”

Jim Cook, another candidate, also leans toward creating a new police department. “I just think it’s kind of funny that it takes almost 60 percent of our general fund to pay a subcontractor for something we should be able to do in-house,” he said.

Jane Daly, a former Citrus Heights planning commissioner, is running on the cops issue. “The cost of our services continues to rise every year,” she said, adding that she doesn’t need to see the final version of the study to make up her mind. “There’s no complaint with the services. The services are great, and the officers are wonderful. But, purely from an economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense.”

She said she’s also skeptical about the keen interest shown by the deputies union. “The DSA has put a lot of money into this campaign to sway the candidates to say the contract makes sense,” she said.

The DSA did dig deep to support Bruins, Shelby and Pelliccione, by handing out $5,000 checks to each. That’s a lot of money for the union, which, according to the most recent campaign-finance forms on file, hasn’t given out that kind of cash to anyone recently. Even Blanas, the biggest recipient, only received $4,500 for his sure-thing re-election bid earlier this year; candidates for state office got less.

Sgt. Jerry Moore, the DSA’s president, didn’t return SN&R phone calls, and neither did department spokesman Sgt. James Lewis.

The Sheriff’s Department has a lot to lose if Citrus Heights kills the contract, which lets either side pull out with 18 months notice. Under the current contract, the city’s $12.5 million buys the services of more than 90 sworn officers and other support staff.

But, even though costs are increasing, city officials and residents are, for the most part, satisfied with the service they get from the Sheriff’s Department. Previous complaints about dispatch problems were addressed and resolved, candidates say. And, in a comprehensive city-commissioned survey this year, 81 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the service.

“We received one of the highest resident-satisfaction responses of any city in Northern California,” said city senior management analyst Hilary Straus.

Paradoxically, Straus said, 64 percent of respondents also said they’d like the city to create its own police department. In the report, pollsters concluded that the apparently contradictory results were an indication that residents were happy with the decision to incorporate and were ready to take on more local control.

To study the issue of starting its own department, the city commissioned an $84,000 study last spring to analyze police services and figure out what’s best financially. A draft is complete, but the document isn’t public yet because the Sheriff’s Department and the DSA are still haggling over a contract in arbitration. Without a firm estimate on labor costs, the final analysis will have to wait until deputies have a new contract, which city officials aren’t expecting until November.

Along with sticking with the sheriff or creating a new department, the study also looks at giving the contract to the City of Roseville and creating a city department that contracts out some services, such as dispatch.

Meanwhile, although Daniels recently started a new job as a Transportation Security Administration screener at Sacramento International Airport, his battle with Blanas and the Sheriff’s Department still lingers.

Daniels has appealed the Civil Service Commission’s decision on his termination from the Sheriff’s Department and is expecting a Superior Court judge to rule on the matter any day now. And, although he still claims he was fired for political reasons, he insists he isn’t playing politics with police services in his city.

“Absolutely not. Look at the study. Look at the budget. This is not my baby,” Daniels said.

He said his enthusiasm for creating a city police department comes from the Sheriff’s Department’s unwillingness to cut costs. “We’ve asked the sheriff’s office to come up with innovative ways to save costs, and they haven’t done that.”