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Guest Opinion: Why Does Pasadena Need 5 Police Helicopters While Long Beach Only Needs 2?

Published on Tuesday, May 3, 2016 | 3:36 pm
Authors Dale Gronemeier (left) and Skip Hickambottom.

Pasadena City Councilmember Victor Gordo on April 18 derailed consideration for the time being of the Independent Police Auditor recommended by the consultants hired by the City. Councilmember Gordo believes attention and money should be directed to the rash of more than a hundred shootings this and last year. In response to the frequent shootings, he indicated he wanted to increase the number of budgeted police officers. While he was critical of the consultant’s report recommending an IPA, he has made it clear to us and to others that he is in favor of transparency and accountability for the Pasadena PD and not opposed to considering an auditor approach to police oversight. But he thinks consideration of an IPA or other form of achieving greater transparency and accountability should be deferred until after violence and police understaffing are addressed. Passage of the IPA would have required 5 votes. 3 of the 8 potential vote were against the IPA. Thus, without Councilmember Gordo’s willing to go forward with it now, its passage at this time was not possible.

We believe increasing the budgeted number of police officers is a false solution to the shootings so long as the already-budgeted number of officers is not close to being met. We think that deferring consideration of police oversight makes no contribution to stopping violence nor stopping the exodus of officers. We agree with Councilmember Gordo that Pasadena needs to get reliable data on why officers are leaving Pasadena. We suspect that the primary reason for the Pasadena PD being 24 officers short of its budgeted strength is the City’s compensation level. If so, the intelligent decision would be to increase officer compensation to attract and retain officers rather than increasing the budgeted number of officers. But even assuming for the purposes of argument that the PD’s problem were a budget problem, trimming the Pasadena PD’s fleet of 5 helicopters is an appropriate way both to contribute to better compensation for PD personnel and to fund an IPA – because Pasadena’s fleet of 5 serves about the same size population as Long Beach’s 2 helicopters serve.

Increasing the Pasadena PD budget should not be considered until the budgeted-officer gap is filled

While proposing that the City should budget more officers to combat violence, Councilmember Gordo also referred to the fact that the Pasadena PD is currently budgeted for 240 officers but presently has only 216 active officers – i.e., it is 24 officers short of the budgeted number. The budgeted-officer gap arises because there has been a steady exodus of Pasadena PD officers to other jurisdictions. We believe the complaints of officers such as PPOA Treasurer David Llanes that the PD’s understaffing is resulting in, for example, enforcement shortfalls for the neighborhoods when neighborhood patrols get diverted to Old Pasadena. But increasing the budgeted officers when the PD isn’t filling the currently budgeted slots isn’t going to address understaffing for the foreseeable future. Until the PD can get close to maxing out its current number of budgeted officers, increasing the budget just allocates to the PD unusable dollars – or dollars that get diverted to other purposes Stopping the exodus of Pasadena PD officers and filling the existing slots is what will immediately solve understaffing.

Deferring consideration of the IPA appears to have no relationship to understaffing

Police union representatives and some Councilmembers have suggested that consideration of the IPA has been a cause of officers leaving. As Councilmember Kennedy aptly pointed out on April 18, the fact that a majority of the officers recently leaving have gone to Anaheim seems to belie that suggestion. Anaheim has both an IPA and a citizens oversight commission. If hostility to the IPA or other forms of potential police oversight is causing officers to leave Pasadena, why would they go to Anaheim which has both an IPA and a citizen’s commission while Pasadena as yet has neither? It makes no sense. So if there is no connection between consideration of an IPA and police understaffing, deferring IPA consideration based on the rationale that police understaffing is preventing addressing violence is a solution unrelated to the problem.

Pasadena should gather reliable data on why officers leave

Notwithstanding that we believe understaffing does not justify delaying consideration of an IPA, we agree with Councilmember Gordo that Pasadena needs to address the exodus of officers. We suspect that officers are going to Anaheim and other cities mainly because of higher pay. If that is the case, budgeting more money for salaries for existing officers would be a better solution than budgeting for more officers at the same non-competitive pay level.

But if one were to believe some of the letters to the editor of the Pasadena Weekly, officers may be leaving because of dissatisfaction with the management of the Pasadena PD. In addition, if one believes the contention of the union and some Councilmembers, advocacy of an IPA by activists such as ourselves is the cause of the exodus.

Sound policy for decisionmaking to address officer attrition requires reliable data as to the reasons officers are leaving. Exit interview by the Pasadena PD or HR are unlikely to be reliable sources of information because departing employees usually don’t want to burn bridges by being frank about their discontents. Pasadena needs to retain an independent investigator to survey officers who have left the PD in the last several years; such an investigator needs to be able to guarantee anonymity in order to get reliable data.

Reducing Pasadena’s bloated fleet of 5 helicopters could be an immediate source of funds

The Pasadena PD’s fleet of 5 helicopters is a prime target to trim and free up funds for an IPA and/or for officer compensation. Pasadena’s fleet serves both the City of Pasadena and 9 other jurisdictions. The City of Long Beach serves its city with just 2 helicopters. The 2010 census indicates that Pasadena and its 9 other jurisdictions had a total population of 473,767 and Long Beach had 469,418. It thus appears that Pasadena is using more than double the resources as Long Beach for a comparable functions. (More recent estimates from the State Department of Finance suggests that Pasadena’s San Gabriel Valleys service area may be growing faster than Long Beach, but even 100,000 more people would not alter that Pasadena seems to be using more than double the resources as Long Beach.)

Figuring out from the City’s 2016 Adopted Budget for the PD (section 19) what the costs and expenses for Air Operations are is not possible. The only numbers that can be determined with certainty are that Air Ops is budgeted to get $388,000 from the Foothill Air Support Team Fund (which is presumably payments from other jurisdictions), an amount which is down by $105,000 from what it was the previous year. Long Beach’s financial disclosure on air operations is more transparent. Long Beach’s two helicopters were purchased in 2011 for $3.5 million. Long Beach’s annual budget for its helicopter operations in 2013 was $1.65 million. This suggests that Pasadena selling two or three helicopters would generate several million dollars and that costs could be reduced by at least a million dollars per annum.

The helicopters are often used for PD public relations through giving free helicopter rides to chosen citizens. The over-resourcing of the helicopter unit has contributed to resentment by hard-working rank and file officers. Resourcing the Pasadena PD with 5 helicopters is the equivalent of giving them Cadillac patrol cars when Fords do the job with excellence. By selling off 2 or 3 of the helicopters and trimming down the staffing of the Air Ops unit, the City should be able to generate funds now and lower costs in the future. Devoting such funds to an IPA and to increased compensation for PD officers would be a better use. We believe that adding an independent pair of eyes to systematically review and audit the PD in order to improve the police force and/or to pay our police officers better are more worthy uses than free helicopter rides to the chosen few.

Skip Hickambottom and Dale Gronemeier are local civil rights attorneys.



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