Paso sets up drug and gang squad

Backed by City Council support to hire more officers, the Paso Robles Police Department will finally have its own team for gang and drug enforcement starting this week.

The unit is separate from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Gang and Narcotics Task Force and will focus specifically on Paso Robles. Its mission: to take gang members and drug dealers off the streets.

The move comes after gang and drug issues in San Luis Obispo County’s second-largest city took a spotlight as police faced difficulties associated with years of budget cuts and too few patrols.

“We’re very aware of the issues of gangs and drugs in society today,” Mayor Duane Picanco said of City Council support for bringing back officers.  “We’re being very cautious for reinstating positions because … our economy is still fragile.”

The development is a sign of recovery for City Hall, whose workforce plummeted during a hiring freeze in the recession. The results were across-the-board cuts to staff, less maintenance to parks, a shuttered pool and employees doing more with less overall.

For the Paso Robles Police Department, cuts meant that almost its entire special programs staff — officers assigned to gangs, drugs, schools and traffic outreach — had to be shuffled to fill gaps in the patrol division.

By late 2011, the council allowed hiring officers back to its patrol division to bring the force up to 32 sworn positions, from the 26 it had at that time. The department now has 29 sworn officers.

It marked the first time police were able to hire officers in four years.

Since then, acting Chief Robert Burton has assigned new officers with veterans. As the patrol staff has become more seasoned, the department has been able to put two veteran officers on the newly formed street team, Lt. Ty Lewis said.

“Their job is primarily proactive — gathering intelligence but also out there working visible (operations) as well,” Lewis said.

The department will reassess the effectiveness of the team this summer, Lewis said, and evaluate that against the loss to the patrol division.

However, the department’s leaders say they believe the street team will alleviate the workload of some routine patrols.

“The whole idea with the street team is to be a proactive unit … which will help take that off the plate of the patrols,” Lewis said.

The sentiment also resonates with leaders of  the Paso Robles Police Officers Association — the union for officers, sergeants and dispatchers — who last year said the cuts had affected the force in tangible ways. Police had been hoping to find a new approach in fighting a growing gang and drug problem with officers focused solely on that task.

Goal of public safety

While police say Paso Robles’ drug and gang problem is cyclical, regional law enforcement concentrated on gang-related crimes there in 2011 after an attempted murder, a drive-by shooting that injured one person and a shooting at a Spring Street apartment complex.

Paso Robles police flag the number of gang-related incidents — which can be anything from an argument to a stabbing — in a crime database each year.

There were 32 incidents in 2007 and again in 2008, but 19 in 2009 and 11 in 2010.

A more recent count showed 23 incidents logged in 2011 and 14 reports of gang-related crime through September 2012.

Paso Robles police pay to be a part of the sheriff’s task force to gain assistance in combating narcotic and gang problems.

During budget cuts, the department opted to pay into the task force rather than devote an officer because leaders wanted to keep staff local. The sheriff’s task force operates countywide.

Working solely on Paso gang and drug issues, the new team will, however, be the go-to liaison with the sheriff’s unit for ongoing operations, Lewis said.

Public safety was affirmed this month by the City Council as one of its goals for the next two years.

The council may also decide to hire more officers in the upcoming fiscal year.

“Public safety is the primary reason we have cities,” Councilman Steve Martin said at the meeting last week. “And everyone across the board here has (said that).”