Placerville City Council decided unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting to keep the city police department rather than to contract with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department to provide law enforcement services. An emotionally charged, standing-room-only, and very articulate crowd presented their case for community policing and they were heard.
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With the May 17 retirement of police chief, George Nielsen, the city is at a critical point — whether it is wiser to keep a city police force and recruit for a new police chief or to contract out for police services with the county and save money.
“It’s important at this time to look at all the options available to the city to make sure we are providing the best option,” said City Manager Cleve Morris as he introduced a report reviewing the city’s options. The report, which can be found on the city’s Website, laid out the pros and cons of both the traditional model of police service and a contract of services model.
“To understand the policing issue requires us to understand the concept of community … communities consider contracting if they are a newly incorporated city or if they are on the verge of financial collapse,” said Chief Nielsen. “Placerville is neither one of these scenarios.”
During public comment, law enforcement officers, residents, teachers, nurses and local business owners spoke to the value of having a city police force. “The passage of Measure J was proof that having our own police department is important to the citizens of Placerville,” said Ron Cannon, resident and 16-year veteran of the Placerville Police Department. “Contracting only ensures that a body will be available to respond, not that you will know their face.”
One of the most cited disadvantages to the contract model was the possible loss of service.”As the saying goes, ‘There’s no free lunch’.” You will not receive the same level of service for a lower price; you will receive less service for a lower price,” said Nielsen, a concern echoed by 12 other speakers who expressed concern that Placerville would become another area of county responsibility like El Dorado Hills.
The advantage of having police officers who are residents of the community and invested in it through their families and on and off-duty activities was spoken of.
“The police who live here and work here are dedicated to this community, ” said Dale Gomes, resident. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. We’d have people on a two-year rotation with no connections to the community.”
“We are coming out on the other side of tragedy, ” said Natalie Miller, principal of Sierra School and representing the Placerville Union School District. “The Placerville police were a part of helping us through that.” She spoke of positive police interactions with students on campus. “It’s important that students see the police as positive because that is a huge benefit to us.”
“The El Dorado Sheriff’s Office will be successful at anything they undertake,” said resident Michael Dennis. “But the Placerville Police Department has been here since 1854 and is as much a part of our history as the Belltower.We want to keep the people who know us and we know them. ”
The difficulty of reforming a city police force if the contract service model didn’t work out was another problem cited by several people. “The city would have to liquidate their police resources,”said Cannon, ” so to start up again would be very expensive. Once it’s done it’s likely it won’t be able to be undone.”
City Manager Cleve Morris agreed. ” I’ve seen this happen in other cities. I emphasize that it is extremely costly and difficult to revert back to traditional service. Also philosophies of contracting can change with the administration, sheriff or board. I’m not convinced that we can save money to have an equal level of service.”
Also alluded to was the Placerville Police Department Annual 2012 Crime Statistics Report presented earlier in the evening. The report presented by Chief Nielsen showed a 56 percent reduction in the crime rate over the past nine years, with 2012 having the lowest crime rate in 12 years at 24.88 crimes per 1,000 people.
“Looking at the report tonight,” said Morris. “It’s clear we have an excellent Police Department. The numbers show that.”
“We’re proud of our 5 minutes or less time of arrival,” said retired PPD Sgt. Kunkle, ” The county and the PPD have two different philosophies and priorities. I challenge you to find many other cities with that time of arrival.”
Ashley Owen, PPD dispatcher said, ” Dispatchers are a valuable asset. We have 63+ years of experience in our dispatch department and do more than just answer calls. I spend more time with my co-workers than my own family and they have become my brothers and sisters. Our family is doing a great job protecting your families.”
City Council then weighed in with their thoughts. “The support for the Police Department I see here gives me the chills, ” said Councilwoman Trisha Wilkins. “I don’t see any pros to not sticking with the traditional service. What our community receives can’t be beat.”
“I appreciate this review of our options … we owe it to our citizens, “said Vice Mayor Carl Hagen. “I respect the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office and what they do, but I don’t think it is community policing. We’d be giving up a lot of service. We need to move on and start the search process to do a good recruitment.”
“It’s pretty clear how the people here feel, ” said Councilwoman Patty Borelli. “I had a conversation with Sheriff D’Agostini and he assured me that he could provide services and save us much money, but I am happy with our current Police Department.”
Several council members spoke of having only two weeks to explore the options, which needed further research. “The PPD has a huge chunk of the general budget — $2.4 million out of $6.5 million — and it is important to look at other ways of doing this,” said Councilwoman Carol Patton. “We were thrust into this with only two weeks notice and it’s hard to make an informed decision when you can’t compare apples to apples. But I remember the police visits on the school grounds and I appreciate that. I don’t know if the Sheriff’s Office could do that.”
Mayor Wendy Mattson cited examples of her contact with the PPD as a business owner and as a private citizen. “What they did mattered to me and I think every citizen deserves that.”
City Council voted unanimously to proceed with recruitment for a new police chief, contracting with consultant Bob Christofferson for the search.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.