Fresno police officers patrol Fresno Yosemite International Airport, nab unruly riders on FAX buses and supervise inmates picking up freeway litter -- all thanks to grants and special contracts.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer said those grants and contracts are an increasingly important part of his recession-tattered budget -- and a big shift from two decades ago when police work was funded almost entirely by city taxes.
But outside money can complicate how Dyer deploys his officers, since many of these agreements come with strings that limit how the officers can be used.
In a perfect world, Dyer said, he would have enough city money to hire all the officers he needs and the authority to use them as he sees fit.
"Since we don't live in a perfect world, and unfortunately we're restricted by the economy, this is what we resort to in difficult times," Dyer said.
Grant-funded officers will respond to any serious incident they see, even if it happens outside their jurisdiction, the chief said.
"They're police officers first," Dyer said.
Short of a major crime event or disaster, however, many of those officers funded with outside money must stay put and cannot be diverted to address a crime surge, such as rising auto thefts or graffiti-tagging violence.
Grants and contracts now pay for roughly 10% of Fresno's 758-member police force, and the city has applied for federal funding that would add 28 additional grant-funded officers.
Fresno is not the only Valley city that taps outside money to keep officers on the force. Clovis, for example, relies on grants to pay for seven of the city's approximately 95 sworn officers, said spokeswoman Calli Biaggi.
"That's a big deal to us," she said.
More cities are looking to law enforcement grants to fill funding gaps, said Mark Correia, chairman of the Justice Studies department at San Jose State University. He said some cities even are asking nonprofit foundations for help.
Correia said law enforcement grants are vital because impoverished cities, with their tax base hammered by rising crime, can't afford to hire more officers.
"You just keep spiraling down," Correia said. "But the need for police services remains the same or increases."
Some grants more restrictive than others
In Fresno's case, outside money to pay for officers has come from federal and state grants, and contracts with schools and other government agencies. Some funds come with more strings than others.
For example, 41 officers currently are funded with a three-year grant from the federal Cops Hiring Recovery Program. Dyer said the grant requires him to use them "in the field" -- typically as patrol officers.
Even if he had total control over the funds, Dyer said, he wouldn't change how those 41 officers are deployed.
But he has less latitude over how other officers are used.
Fresno Area Express, the city's municipal bus service, reimburses the Police Department for four officers assigned full-time to FAX patrol. Dyer said the officers help ensure a safe bus ride for customers but are unavailable to him for other duties.
"They get their assignments from FAX," Dyer said.
A minor but telling example of the unusual nature of officer-funded grants emerged recently at a City Council meeting. The Police Department asked for a seemingly routine renewal of a two-year litter-removal contract with the California Department of Transportation.
The deal called for up to two Fresno police officers to guard low-risk Madera County jail inmates as they picked up litter and cleared brush along Caltrans highways running through the city.
But several council members wondered whether litter patrol is the best use of police officers, and postponed the vote.
Dyer has since written a report saying Madera County jail officials require the inmates to be guarded by sworn law enforcement officers. He also wrote that the Fresno police officers' positions would be eliminated if the Caltrans deal is rejected.
The deal is expected to return to the council soon.
More help on the way?
Without giving examples, Dyer said some grants are more trouble than they're worth -- their auditing requirements might be too onerous, or they fund positions that don't fit the department's mission.
Still, Dyer acknowledged some grants fund positions he probably wouldn't staff if he had to pay for them out of city funds.
"But they still provide a benefit to the citizens of Fresno," he said.
Dyer said outside sources of funding are even more important in this era of shrinking city budgets. He said his department about a year ago had 849 sworn officers, but has since lost 91 through attrition. He said about an additional 10 officers could be gone through attrition by January.
The Fresno Police Department has applied for 11 grants in the past three months, Dyer said. One could fund about 20 additional civilian employees. The department has lost 275 civilian positions -- records clerks, community service officers, technical support staff and cadets have been hit especially hard -- during the city's long budget crisis.
Dyer said he also is hopeful about a federal grant that would fund 28 new officers for three years to be used in the department's Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Dyer wants to create four teams of officers that would concentrate on interacting with citizens and solving problems in high-risk neighborhoods.
He said he hopes federal officials assigned to City Hall as part of President Barack Obama's Strong Cities Strong Communities program will use their influence on behalf of Fresno's application.
"You can't have strong cities and strong communities," Dyer said, "unless you have safe cities and safe communities."