Last year I predicted that Stockton’s thorniest problem in 2023 would be hiring enough police. Well, things aren’t as bad as I predicted — they’re worse. Time to discuss a radical response.
First, let me set the table. The city’s main police union posted an update on its Facebook Page last week.
“…Our staffing levels have continued to decrease drastically, falling continuously each month,” it reads. “We are now at critically low levels…”
The post says the number of cops has withered to 360.
That number since last week bumped to 366. Either number is outrageous. Despite low median incomes, Stockton voters in 2013 approved Measure A, a ¾-cent sales tax increase the city promised to divvy two ways: 2/3 to fund 120 more cops, 1/3 to pay Stockton’s bankruptcy debt and other expenses.
The city has collected the tax for a decade — reaping tens of millions — and taxpayers have one whole cop to show for it.
“Among the cuts were detectives from general crimes and family crimes, proactive enforcement units, homeless outreach, community policing services, school resource officers, and detectives assigned to Federal Agency partnerships,” the police union post says.
The bike patrol? Gone. The officers assigned to HUD housing, Conway Homes and Sierra Vista? Gone. The Community Response Team that helped solve homicides and “took hundreds of guns from the hands of violent criminals”? Decimated.
“Other equally important assignments were lost, property crimes detectives, traffic motor officers, and school resource officers. Only one detective is now assigned to the entire cities (sic) misdemeanor case follow-up …”
I could go on. The point is clear. Stocktonians pay tax for extra cops but get bupkis. We’ve examined the reasons before: The shift in attitudes toward police following the George Floyd killing and other high-profile abuses discouraged many potential and even active police. The Covid-19 recession. And the most annoying, other cities with less crime which pay more, and offer faster advancement, cities — Tracy, Elk Grove, others — that cheerfully poach Stockton cops.
“Since January 1, 2012, the city has hired 667 Police Officers, but 625 have since separated from the Department,” the post glooms.
And at least 30 retirements loom.
Speaking before the city council last month, Stockton police Lt. Anabel Morris said, “Trainees’ applications a decade ago averaged 1,500 applications every time they test. Now it’s 140. Out of those 140, we perhaps have 30 — the last time was 33 — that were successful. And so out of these 33 we still have to make sure they meet that criteria by interviewing them … by the time we get to the final list we may end up with nine people… And so the struggle continues.”
This problem has been such a tough nut to crack that some critics think there’s no solution. Not just to the hiring issue, but to the tax, which Stocktonians have pungled up for a decade.
They point to Measure A being a general tax, as opposed to a restricted tax, meaning city leaders are legally free to spend Measure A revenue any damn way they please (restricted taxes must go to a designated recipient).
Can’t find cops? Well, there’s plenty of other things we can spend money on, such as other departments, bankruptcy debt, deferred maintenance, a new City Hall, public employee pensions, etc.
To its credit, the council last month unanimously approved the hire of a recruitment firm, Epic Productions of Phoenix, to augment the city’s search for cops.
“The component that we are missing is that social media/geofencing opportunity,” Morris told the council, “and this is a great chance for us to explore that …”
Geofencing, by the way, creates a virtual geographical boundary that triggers a “marketing action” — in this case a recruitment pitch — to someone’s mobile device when they cross the boundary.
Epic boasts other effective outreach techniques, as well as a track record of helping cities all over Northern California, said Morris, who cited its work with Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, which led to a 300% increase in applications. The Sheriff filled every vacant position.
So bringing Epic on board is a promising step. The council, city manager’s office and police department must find more. Godspeed, and all that.
But … what if all efforts fall short? What if the labor market is so tight, and Stockton’s budget so limiting, that it can never even come close to hiring 120 cops?
Well, Measure A is scheduled to “sunset” next year. But there’s a catch. A’s language gives the council, not voters, the authority to renew the ¾-cent sales tax. And the council almost certainly will.
“Without that funding we would transition back into a structural budget deficit mode, which the city has been able to climb out of,” City Manager Harry Black said.
Translation: the city would slide back into the red. Then what?
“Figure out a way to generate more revenue or cut expenses,” Black said.
Citizens could demand the council sunset Measure A and put a restrictive tax on the ballot that would ensure all tax revenue went to police.
But restrictive taxes require 2/3 voter approval. Measure A, being a general tax, required only 50%+1, and it barely passed. A restrictive tax measure would fail.
Some Stocktonians might prefer cuts, even drastic cuts, to paying a never-ending tax that seems FUBAR. I wouldn’t blame them, though they might not like the skeleton-crew services that would ensue.
But there’s another option. It’s a beast, and it’s never been discussed, but it’s legal and deserves consideration: Proposition 218.
Prop. 218, the brain child of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, amended the California Constitution to require voter approval for local government taxes.
It also includes a provision that “Any local tax, assessment or fee may be reduced or repealed through the initiative process.”
And Prop. 218 sets the bar low for qualifying the initiative: signatures from 5% of the number of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which in Stockton would be about 8,000 signatures.
I called the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association and spoke to the president, Jon Coupal.
“Here’s the bargaining chip that taxpayers could use,” Coupal said. “You go to the city council and say, ‘We want you to knock it down one quarter percent and get the cops. If you don’t, we’re going to take you’re damn tax away.’”
My point is that Stockton taxpayers are not imprisoned for eternity by Measure A and the police department’s perennial short-staffing. Taxpayers could wait until, say, the fourth quarter of 2023 to see if city leaders staff up the police.
If they do, great. Applause sign, etc.
If they don’t, perhaps it would be time to consider — to thoughtfully debate — repealing or modifying Measure A.
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.