MADERA, Calif. — Besides the statewide anti-crime warning, "Use a gun, go to jail," residents of this central San Joaquin Valley town are being told that if they start trouble, they must pay the bill.
"Cause trouble, foot the bill," is the new anti-crime slogan in Madera and, although it isn't as dramatic or threatening as the statewide slogan, Police Chief Gordon Skeels thinks the campaign will make residents think twice before doing something that could result in police action.
At the same time, Skeels sees a monetary profit from the campaign.
Under a pilot program begun late last month, police are billing instigators of trouble for the cost of police action.
Those who pick a fight, burglarize a house or business or create any other disturbance that results in police intervention in Madera are likely to find a bill in the mailbox a few days later.
In the first two weeks since the program began, the department sent bills to about 10 people who were the cause of emergency police responses.
Skeels said the first bills averaged between $25 and $30 per incident.
"We haven't gotten any payment on the bills yet, but we really didn't expect any this soon because they are given 30 days to pay," he said.
He said most of the first few bills involved barroom fights and similar disturbances.
"We're just getting into the program so it will take awhile to get it completely organized," Skeels said. "Eventually, we plan to bill people for just about all minor police emergency calls that involve people making trouble."
He said the billing will not be done for such crimes as murder, kidnaping or major robberies.
"We're only talking about incidents involving relatively minor police action," Skeels said. "We're not going to bill a killer for the hundreds of hours we spend on that type of investigation.
"Besides, we know we are unlikely to be able to collect from someone who is sent to prison for a long time."
Medical emergency calls and traffic accident calls also are exempt from the billing policy, he said.
However, Skeels said anyone who does get a bill from the Police Department must pay up within 30 days or be taken to Small Claims Court by the city.
Skeels decided to initiate the program for a one-year trial period to see how effective it will be.
"I think we are going to find we can recover several thousand dollars a year with the program and I think we will find that it is well worth the effort," he said.
He said the program is allowed under recent changes that the state Legislature made in the government code.
"Fire departments have had the right to bill people for fire calls for a long time," Skeels said. "With the recent changes, that right has been expanded to include other emergency agencies such as police departments, so we thought we would take advantage of it."
The chief said victims are never billed for police calls.
"The bartender who calls to report a fight in his tavern or the property owner who reports a burglary aren't the ones we're after," Skeels said. "But if we find the guy who started the fight or the person who burglarized the home or business, we are going to bill him for our costs."
Skeels said that when his department sends a bill to an instigator, the amount on the bill is not an arbitrary figure.
"Along with the bill, the person gets a computer printout showing the cost of operating a patrol car, the breakdown of the responding officers' salaries, the time spent by officers on the call and any other costs involved," he said. "With our computers we can determine the cost of a police call down to the penny."
Money collected from those billed will be used by the department to purchase new equipment or replace worn-out equipment.
"Besides being another deterrent, we see the policy as something that will ease the burden on taxpayers," Skeels said. "Whatever we collect from the troublemakers will be just that much less we'll need in our budget, which comes from taxes."