After months of confusion over whether Paso Robles police were responding to certain crimes, the department has dropped a policy designed to help officers prioritize calls. A recent bump in new hires helped pave the way for the decision.
“I wanted to end a policy that was misrepresenting what we do,” said Acting Police Chief Robert Burton, who made the move in May.
However, the department is keeping policies directing officers not to respond to traffic accidents with no injuries. This also includes delegating investigations of theft of property valued at less than $10,000 to patrol officers instead of detectives.
Police adopted the now-abandoned procedure last year when budget constraints let patrol officer staffing sometimes fall to minimum levels — two officers and one sergeant on any given 12-hour shift. Ideally, there are three patrol officers and one sergeant per shift.
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When the discarded policy was first implemented in 2011, police had 15 patrol officers. That was down from 19 patrols in 2010.
Today, there are 16 patrol officers plus two in training.
The abandoned guidelines were designed to help supervisors manage calls on bare-minimum staffing days by first directing patrol officers to immediate threats to life, major injury or property loss such as murder, rape and robbery. Those are described as first and second priority calls. “If we have all of our resources deployed to a bar fight, we’re not going to pull someone out of that to go take a report of a theft with no injury right away,” Burton said, offering an example of the defunct policy.
The strategy gave officers leeway to respond to lesser calls a few hours later or on the next shift instead of redirecting them in the midst of criminal activity, Burton said.
“We still responded to most everything,” Burton said. “(The policy) just gave us a framework on prioritization.”
Lesser calls include 15 crimes that are third- and fourth-priority calls, which don’t pose significant threat or injury, such as reports of a suspicious person or a loud party, according to the Police Department.
Ultimately, though, Burton said the guidelines were confusing.
At first, supervisors and dispatchers weren’t sure whether to send officers to the lesser crimes on low-staffed days if serious incidents weren’t occurring, Burton said.
“We shortly discovered that it couldn’t be as stringent as it was that there were many times we didn’t have (serious) calls. We modified the plan (in 2011) to allow officers to respond to (lesser) calls if more serious crimes weren’t pending,” Burton said.
But the public also began to worry.
“The word got out that the Police Department goes into safety mode and we don’t respond to calls anymore — meaning we don’t go to calls at all and just hang out at the station. And that just wasn’t the case,” Burton said.
Among those concerned was Paso Robles resident Karen Daniels, who has been disappointed at the lack of police response to her calls about alleged drug activity she has witnessed in town. Drug activity is identified as a third-priority call.
Frustrated, Daniels founded the Change Paso Robles Now group to advocate for more government transparency.
The Paso Robles Police Department has seen cuts with the rest of the city during the recession.
People and programs have disappeared through attrition, retirement and reassignment. Layoffs are not being considered.
At the same time the old policy was implemented, department leaders also decided that drivers in non-injury traffic collisions would no longer get police response and detectives would no longer investigate property crimes with losses less than $10,000. Those property crimes would also be deactivated if patrol officers couldn’t solve them. Those policies are still in effect.
While police staffing has improved this year — the city authorized that more officers be hired late last year — the department has not reached its goal of increasing its patrol division to 20 officers.
Currently, the department has 26 sworn positions. Of those, 16 are patrol officers. Three patrol applicants are undergoing required background checks. Two more are in training. That will bring the total to 21 — but once the new hires are on board, one of the department’s uniformed officers will work in the county narcotics and gang unit.
Ultimately, the plan is to increase Paso Robles police staffing to a total of 32 sworn positions — 20 being patrol staff, Burton said.
The search for a new police chief is under way. Former Police Chief Lisa Solomon resigned in April amid allegations of sexual harassment and enforcing an illegal ticket quota.
The Paso Robles Police Association, the employee union for patrol officers and sergeants, could not be reached for comment.