Fresno leaders promise more officers, but can police department deliver?

A major feature of Mayor Lee Brand’s election campaign last year was a pledge to boost the number of police officers combating crime in the city of Fresno. In fact, such “more officers/tough on crime/better public safety” promises have been a staple of nearly every political campaign in Fresno in recent years.

But difficulty recruiting new officers to the Fresno Police Department – combined with attrition from retirements and defections to other law enforcement agencies for better pay, more attractive locations and less stress – means that the force is dozens of officers short of its intended and funded levels. It’s a situation that has raised questions about the validity of promises to make residents safer by adding more officers.

“The challenge for us is when people believe we are hiring large numbers of officers, there becomes a wide gap between what the expectations and desires of the citizenry are, and what the reality is, what we’re able to deliver,” police Chief Jerry Dyer told The Bee.

The city’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year that ends June 30 called for 804 sworn personnel; Brand’s new $1.13 billion budget for 2017-18, adopted Thursday by the Fresno City Council, increases the number even further, at least on paper. The police department’s share of the budget is almost $141.8 million.

“This year, we’re adding 21 additional sworn police personnel, increasing our staffing level to 825, the highest since 2010,” Brand told an enthusiastic audience Wednesday in his first State of the City address.

It’s one thing to add officers in a budget; it’s quite another, however, to make that budget translate to officers on the streets. As of last week, Fresno’s police force numbered 761 sworn officers – 43 shy of this year’s budgeted number, and 64 short of what’s called for in the new budget year that starts July 1. That figure includes 69 officers who were off duty because of injury, Dyer added.

The shortfall doesn’t necessarily mean that Fresno residents are in danger – but the advertised budget numbers may lend to a false sense of improved security. That’s something that caught the attention of City Council members this month during hearings on the department’s budget.

“We’re going to tell the public – the mayor’s going to make an announcement when this budget’s passed: ‘Yay, the city’s budgeted for 825 officers,” said Councilman Steve Brandau, whose district covers northwest Fresno. “The real truth we have to deal with, we haven’t even met last year’s goal of the number of officers we budgeted for.”

Councilman Garry Bredefeld, who represents northeast Fresno, voiced a similar concern. “It’s great that we can have 825 positions (in the budget). We could have 924. But if they’re unfunded, we send a message that we’re adding police officers when in reality we’re not, because we can’t even keep what we have.

“I think the political reality  is that we all talk about public safety as the number 1 priority, but I don’t think as a council we’ve done what we need to make sure we’re competitive in terms of pay with other law enforcement agencies,” Bredefeld added.

Dyer estimated that the average compensation package for a police officer in Fresno is about $125,000 for salary, benefits and pension obligations, plus another $10,000 for the necessary equipment to put that officer on the street.

Why the shortage?

If the money is in the budget, why doesn’t Fresno have its full complement of officers?

“We have hired, in 3 1/2 years, 264 officers, about 75 a year. That’s plenty to get us caught up where we need to be and at full strength,” Dyer said. “The problem is, we’ve had a number of people leaving the department annually. At one time that number was about five or six a month, which is why we haven’t seen much progress in terms of numbers.”

“People think we have been hiring large numbers of officers and building our patrol forces for the last three years,” he added. Still, the department is shy of its pre-recession levels. In 2009, before the wheels fell off Fresno’s economy, Fresno had 837 sworn officers, out of 849 that were funded in the city’s budget.

“So there’s a huge gap between where we were in 2009 and where we are today,” the chief said, “and the call volumes have increased dramatically.”

There are idiosyncrasies in the city’s budget that further confuse matters. While the document says it provides almost $141.8 million to pay for 825 officers, 12 of the 21 new positions authorized won’t be hired until next spring. Another nine are being paid for by the city’s Transportation Department and will be assigned to the Fresno Area Express bus transit unit, primarily responding to incidents on the city’s new Bus Rapid Transit system and along the Blackstone Avenue and Ventura Street/Kings Canyon Road BRT corridors.

The city also is counting on a certain number of positions being vacant for at least part of the year – a factor called “attrition savings” of about 2.2 percent. That presumed savings is applied to other needs that would not otherwise be included in the budget.

“The reality is that we cannot get to 100 percent because the funding isn’t there for 100 percent,” Dyer said. He added that some portion of the attrition savings comes because if an officer leaves the department, it takes time before that position can be refilled.

The staffing gap is reflected in how the department prioritizes calls for help. “If it’s an in-progress crime or a life-threatening call, we’re going to be there very quickly,” Dyer said. “It’s those calls that we’re delayed on, where a (property) crime has occurred, like a vehicle burglary or even a residential burglary and the suspect is no longer in the area, those take us more time to respond to simply because we don’t have the resources to get to them as quickly as we’d like.”

That’s something that Brandau said he wants to address through using money from unfilled officer positions for community service officers, or CSOs – civilians in uniform who can respond to lesser property crimes to take police reports, collect fingerprints and process evidence.

“The reality is that we are not going to get to 825 by the time we’re sitting here next year,” Brandau said. “I’d like the council to consider meeting the needs and demands of the community” by having community service officers responding to property crimes.

“If someone gets their garage broken into, I think the public will understand if they get a CSO to respond instead of an officer,” Brandau said, adding that for two break-ins last year he didn’t even bother filing a police report because of the “rigmarole” involved in getting a police officer to respond.

Dyer said the department has six CSOs. They, and cadets hired to go through the police academy before becoming sworn officers, typically handle dozens of non-urgent incidents daily to ease the burden on officers.

‘Help on the way’

Dyer said the real problem isn’t so much finding officers to fill positions, but the number of officers who leave the agency. “I can’t tell you today how many people will leave this department in the next year,” Dyer told council members this month.

“They leave for family reasons, for relocating to the coast, or to a slower department – we are a very busy department – and they also leave because of the pay,” Dyer told The Bee. Plenty of smaller cities have caught up to Fresno in their pay scales, “and the workload is far less.”

Emotional and often racially charged protests of officer-involved shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and other communities across the country in recent years also tainted interest in law-enforcement careers among would-be applicants. “You’ve had protests and riots and police officers across the country being scrutinized and criticized – what I believe to be unfairly – and that has caused people to not want to get into law enforcement or get into a large urban policing environment,” Dyer said. “Sometimes it’s much easier to work for a small jurisdiction where the scrutiny isn’t as great.”

But Dyer also expressed confidence that the atmosphere for hiring new officers is improving. “We are starting to do really well in terms of recruitment,” he said.

The department has 28 cadets in the police academy, and another 17 would-be officers going through background checks. “So when all of those numbers come to fruition, we’re going to be very near where our authorized strength is,” he said. “Are we able to add another 21, which is the number in the new fiscal year? For me, the answer is yes.”

And the tide seems to be turning when it comes to attracting seasoned officers from other agencies rather than fresh recruits through the police academy. Dyer said the department has five such “lateral hires” in the background screening process now.

Fresno’s overall crime rate is down 10 percent compared to last year, but that progress is tainted by an 82 percent spike in the number of homicides so far in 2017. Still, Dyer offers reassurance to residents.

“Help is on the way,” he said of the improved hiring and recruiting pipeline. “But until it gets here, we all have to be patient in terms of what we’re able to respond to in a timely fashion versus an untimely fashion.”