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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Critics Say Two's a Crowd in Patrol Cars--and a Waste

Sheriff: Few other agencies nationwide double up officers, a Times study finds. Department reviews policy, but defends the practice.

August 13, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A controversial policy of staffing two deputies to a patrol car, described by critics as a waste of taxpayer money, is now under review by the Sheriff's Department.

But even as sheriff's officials examine the $3.4-million annual program, they defend the merits of the policy, calling it critical to public and officer safety.

Unlike any other major police agency in the county, the Sheriff's Department began doubling its patrol car staff in 1995, shortly after it began receiving annual cash windfalls from the public safety tax initiative, Proposition 172.

A Times study of patrol practices around the country shows only 11% of police agencies nationwide double staffs in patrol cars. And of those, most are large metropolitan departments, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where murder cases routinely reach more than 400 annually. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department handled 11 homicides in 1999.

Representatives from several agencies operating with one-officer patrol cars argue the extra staffing is unnecessary, citing studies that show an extra officer in a car had no impact on response times or reducing crime rates.

"In fact, studies seem to indicate there are fewer injuries to officers and fewer complaints against one-person units," said Donald Zettlemoyer, a former detective in Detroit, where two-man units are still used. Zettlemoyer is now director of the Justice and Safety Institute for Pennsylvania State University.

Critics of Ventura County's policy say it is an example of a department flush with money and it underscores the need for changing the way Proposition 172 dollars are distributed.

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The Sheriff's Department gets two-thirds of the more than $40 million generated annually by a half-cent sales tax, approved by voters in 1993. Six city police agencies split 4% of the pot.

"It's grotesque, just grotesque," said Andrew Gustafson, a former assistant county counsel for Ventura County. "They have so much money they can't spend all they have. Try as they might, the fact of the matter is they can't spend the money fast enough."

Sheriff Bob Brooks said the decision to review the department's staffing policy was not prompted by criticism that arose during this year's budget negotiations with the county.

County supervisors, grappling with a $5-million shortfall, had threatened to strip more than $3 million from the sheriff's budget. Brooks warned that would mean ending programs like two-person patrols, which in turn sparked a debate about the patrols.

"We believe it's a real advantage," Brooks maintains. "When we consider staffing levels, we look at what it's like to go to a bar fight alone in Oak View. We look at the danger. We base it on that."

But Richard Clemence, a former Ventura County sheriff's deputy who runs a security consulting business, said the county should have independently audited the Sheriff's Department's staffing policy.

"I just want to know what the rational here is," Clemence said. "Why is this necessary? We already have one of the most expensively run sheriff's departments. Why don't we have a big time study to look at this before we continue to dump 30 million bucks a year on a gold-plated Sheriff's Department?"

Although the sheriff was asked during budget hearings to reduce his budget by $1.5 million, the two-person patrols remain.

Several months ago, however, Brooks said he ordered his staff to look at calls for service during the hours when patrol teams were on the clock, from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Prompting the move, he said, was a need to free up deputies to go after hundreds of county residents with outstanding warrants.

But Supervisor Kathy Long said the board requested the review.

"We asked the sheriff to do the audit," Long said. "We said, 'Take a look at that policy and show us the performance effectiveness of it.' "

Generally, the program has strong support among board members, who scoff at the notion that the steep expense is overkill in a county routinely ranked as one of the safest in the nation.

"Vigilance is extremely important," said Supervisor Frank Schillo. "Just because we are the safest county today, we could be at the bottom of the list if we don't keep the pressure on."

Long added that the second deputy is a vital line of defense for residents in unincorporated areas, and the deputies themselves.

"As much as we look to them to provide safety for us," Long said, "we need to provide it to them too--to give them the backup in the rural roads in the dark of night."

Brooks said the decision five years ago to double-team patrol cars in the late afternoon and night shifts was an effort to replenish a staff that was slashed when property tax revenue was shifted from cities and counties to the state in 1992.

"It's all about restitution," Brooks said. "We made a commitment that if we got that money, it would go to front line law enforcement. And that's where it goes."

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