Editorial

Two officers for downtown are too much at this time

SLO police chief is developing a program that needs a chance

letters@thetribunenews.comApril 7, 2013 

The Downtown Centre in downtown San Luis Obispo.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

We agree that there must be adequate police staffing in downtown San Luis Obispo to deal with a range of problems — from aggressive panhandling and public intoxication to assaults and other serious crimes.

But no matter how many officers the city puts on the street, that’s not going to erase the social problems of homelessness, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.

That’s why we’re not persuaded that the Downtown Association’s request that the city spend $261,000 for two police officers to deal with transient-related problems downtown will be effective.

To deal with the underlying issues of San Luis Obispo’s transient population, the city needs a more comprehensive program — one that police Chief Steve Gesell has been developing.

He plans to launch a Community Action Team made up of two police officers who will focus on the transient population. The team will work with mental health providers and social service agencies to find long-term solutions.

Gesell also is working to expand the Police Department’s volunteer program to put trained volunteers on the street.

And, he’s advocating for a “cultural shift” that would limit services to “program resistant individuals” — transients who are putting a strain on local programs but have no interest in availing themselves of job, education or housing opportunities.

For example, he would discourage downtown shoppers from giving directly to panhandlers and instead, would provide instant opportunities — via parking meter donations — to contribute to social service programs.

He also believes that shelters should deny entry to transients who have a history of causing problems in the community. That makes sense in theory, but we’d want to know the specifics before supporting that concept.

We do, however, strongly endorse Gesell’s other strategies, and we urge the City Council to give those plans a chance to work before spending $261,000 per year to hire two officers for downtown. (Keep in mind, the Downtown Association is asking for two uniformed officers seven days a week, which could drive the bill even higher.)

Here’s why: Although the city’s financial situation is improving, there’s still competition for limited dollars. For example, funding for the city’s single school resources officer, who works at both Laguna Middle School and San Luis Obispo High, may be drastically reduced. The San Luis Coastal Unified School District has picked up 75 percent of that officer’s salary, but the district must make major budget cuts and, as a result, the city could lose as much as $120,000 per year.

Then what? Will there be enough money to hire two officers for downtown and keep the school resource officer?

And will there be any money left over for some of the other programs that are part of the city’s ambitious, overall strategy to address homelessness?

We recognize that the Downtown Association is dealing with a growing concern that visitors are not finding downtown to be the safe, inviting place that it once was.

But the Police Department is getting ready to implement a plan to address that. We urge the City Council to give that plan a reasonable amount of time to work. If the situation has not improved in, say, six months, then consider hiring one additional officer.

Given the continuing financial constraints on the city, that’s a reasonable compromise that would provide the relief the Downtown Association is seeking, without jeopardizing other worthy programs.

CITY’S HOMELESS PLAN

The city of SLO has made homelessness its top priority for the coming two-year budget cycle. Here’s the program it has laid out:

• Implement comprehensive strategies to address homelessness in our city in partnership with other entities.

• Encourage existing, improved and expanded services (including advocating to the county and other organizations for delivery of case management, drug, alcohol, detoxification and mental health services).

• Support the establishment of a new homeless services center.

• Pursue good-neighbor, safety and quality of life programs (including restrooms), using technology as appropriate.

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