Paso Robles police chief's request to hire traffic officer is denied

Paso Robles Public Safety Center
Paso Robles Public Safety Center jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Citing the city’s slow recovery from the economic recession, the Paso Robles City Council has denied a Police Department request to hire a full-time motorcycle traffic officer, a position the department lost in 2011.

Council members also voiced concerns over the recurring cost for the officer when they denied the request by Police Chief Robert Burton at Tuesday’s council meeting.

The officer would have cost the city $62,500 this fiscal year and $125,000 in recurring costs for the officer’s salary and benefits.

Half of the officer’s salary would have been covered this year by a state law enforcement grant.

The council instructed Burton to have staff research additional funding options and report back within three to six months.

The council decision came after Burton presented a progress report on efforts to recover service levels decimated in the economic recession of 2008. The department had 41 sworn officers in 2007; after not filling positions lost to retirements and transfers, the department was down to 26 sworn officers in 2011, or a ratio of 0.86 officers per 1,000 residents.

The department has since restored staffing levels to 33 full-time sworn officers, or 1.1 officers per 1,000 residents in 2015, Burton said.

The city’s general plan calls for 1.4 to 1.6 sworn officers per 1,000 residents.

Since 2011, the department has also re-established a meaningful gang and drug unit, acquired a second K-9, added a community service officer and maintained community outreach programs such as Neighborhood Watch, the Citizens’ Academy and its Explorer Program, Burton said.

However, one position the department has not recovered is a traffic safety officer, one of two traffic positions lost in 2011.

Burton said the effects of losing its traffic unit are reflected in the stats. In 2007, the department arrested 677 DUI drivers. In 2011, that number dropped to 208 drivers; last year, officers arrested 471 DUI drivers.

But accidents have also decreased since 2007, department data shows. That year, the city recorded 323 traffic accidents, which also hit a 10-year low in 2011 and rose steadily to 266 accidents last year.

There was one traffic fatality in 2010, none reported in 2011 and three reported in 2014. Last year, 98 injuries were reported in traffic accidents in Paso Robles.

Burton said Wednesday that traffic enforcement is one of the department’s top priorities, having identified areas where traffic accidents and other violations are high.

Though the department kept its motorcycle fleet, it doesn’t have the officers to fill the seats. Burton said that currently patrol officers will respond to reports of traffic accidents but must leave that scene if they receive a criminal report.

“Right now we’re having difficulty with traffic complaints, and we want to make sure we’re up to speed on our current priorities,” Burton said. “It’s my hope in three to six months to see more progress with the financial picture.”