Voters here will go to the polls next week to help city officials decide whether to close the 21-year-old Police Department and hire Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies to patrol the city.
The advisory measure was placed on Tuesday's ballot after a preliminary city study showed that it would be about $2 million a year cheaper to contract for law enforcement services with the Sheriff's Department. An in-depth financial study completed last month by the Sheriff's Department, which is championing the switch, estimated the savings to be $1.5 million.
The Bell Gardens Police Department has 44 sworn officers, 24 of whom patrol the city with between three and seven cars on the streets at any time. According to the preliminary plan by the Sheriff's Department, the Pico Rivera station would have 33 sworn officers assigned to Bell Gardens, 24 of whom would patrol the city, with four to six patrol cars on the beat at any time.
In addition to patrols, the Sheriff's Department would also provide 20 hours of helicopter service a month, five gang and narcotics detectives, three community services officers to handle reports and a community relations officer to handle non-emergency calls.
City Manager Claude Booker said city leaders believe the quality of service would be the same. The Sheriff's Department has recently started covering all or part of two Southeast area cities: Cudahy and sections of north Long Beach. City officials and residents from both areas have given the department high marks. But Officer Ed Taylor, president of the Bell Gardens Police Officers Assn., which is leading the opposition to the measure, likened the switch to changing from a "full-service to a self-service gas station."
"We have everyone right here, the officers, the secretaries, the dispatchers," Taylor said. "Compare that to sending deputies out from a substation in Pico Rivera. It's not the same thing."
If residents approve the switch, the council will ask the Sheriff's Department to determine how many of the city's officers can be hired and how Police Department equipment and buildings can be used. Sheriff's Department officials say most of the city's officers would be hired as deputies.
The decision on whether to close the Police Department has become an especially troubling one for residents amid a growing furor over reports of use of excessive force by sheriff's deputies. In the last six weeks, four people have been shot to death by deputies in controversial circumstances. This week, a U.S. district judge, acting on a civil rights lawsuit by Lynwood residents complaining of violence by deputies, said he may issue an order to control the conduct of the Lynwood deputies.
"I worry about (the reports of excessive force)," said longtime Bell Gardens resident Grace Della-Chiara. "I don't know what I'm going to do. On one hand, the city should save money, but if the service isn't good, then what good are the savings?"
Critics of the measure argue that Bell Gardens should keep its Police Department and not relinquish control over public safety to the County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the Sheriff's Department budget.
"Home control is the best bet," said Bell Gardens Lt. Dale Pierce. "Citizens are getting better service, and our crime stats are falling while the county is seeing an increase."
In ballot arguments, Pierce and Taylor said that reported cases of forcible rape rose 5.7% in California but dropped more than 20% in Bell Gardens in 1990. The officers also said that in 1990 robbery and auto theft reports increased statewide but declined in the city.
City officials have repeatedly said that quality of service is not the issue. Money is. "Both will provide good service," City Manager Booker said. "And the council has said, 'Yes, we have the money to keep our own department.' But if you live like a rich man and burn up money, do you stay a rich man?' "
That argument, however, has fallen flat among city police officers, who point out that the city has $10 million in reserves and has enjoyed a windfall of at least $10 million a year in sales tax revenue from the Bicycle Club, a card casino.
This is not the first time that city officials have discussed contracting with the Sheriff's Department. In 1987, after Booker conducted a periodic analysis of police costs, the council discussed the option at several meetings. It backed down after protests by longtime residents who remembered the days before Bell Gardens had its own Police Department and was Sheriff's Department territory.
"We just didn't get any coverage," Ethel Nelson, a 54-year Bell Gardens resident, said recently of the sheriff's patrols before 1970. "I think all of the old-timers are against this."
City officials sent a survey to the 5,000 registered voters earlier this year, asking them whether they wanted to switch to the Sheriff's Department and, if so, what they wanted to do with the money saved. Nearly 60% of the 909 residents who responded said they would favor a switch. Most said they wanted to use the money for more police patrols and more drug enforcement.
Bell Gardens Officers Pierce and Taylor discounted the results of the survey, saying that the wording was misleading.