Kevin Valine

Modesto News: Police by the numbers

Mayor Garrad Marsh has consistently said Modesto does not have enough police officers.

The Police Department is allocated 209 officers in the city’s current budget. That number includes the police chief all the way down to the newest rookie officer. The department also has about a quarter fewer officers than it did in 2008 after years of budget cuts. City and police officials say officers often go from call to call and have little time for proactive policing, in which officers get to know the community in an effort to stop crime before it happens.

But at last week’s City Council meeting, Marsh took his comments a step further by saying this: “Even if we were fully staffed, we have the lowest number of police for any city our size in California, (and) the United States.”

That’s a strong statement, but how accurate is it?

If you compare Modesto with the seven cities it uses as benchmarks – San Bernardino, Riverside, Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento – it is ranked near the bottom but is not alone.

A common way of looking at police staffing is by looking at how many officers a city has per 1,000 residents. Based on that measure, Modesto has 1 officer per 1,000 residents, while Riverside has 0.99 officers per 1,000 residents. Visalia has 1.08 officers and Bakersfield has 1.09 officers. San Bernardino has 1.18 officers. Fresno has 1.41, Stockton 1.45 and Sacramento 1.54 officers.

These calculations are based on how many sworn officers each police department has allocated in its current budget, and the cities’ populations as of January based on California Department of Finance estimates.

And here is a big caveat. This week the FBI released its annual Crime in the United States report and strongly advised against comparing the crime rates of one community with other communities. The FBI said many factors influence a community’s crime rate, including its economy, poverty level, family cohesion and the number of young people. Those factors also influence how many police officers a community needs.

By the way, the FBI reported violent crime in Modesto was up 4.3 percent last year compared with 2013, while property crime fell 8.8 percent.

Marsh made his comments while speaking with council candidate Joe Williams, who was decrying crime in his neighborhood. Marsh said in an interview that he misspoke but his underlying point remains true – Modesto simply does not have enough police officers to adequately serve the city given its level of crime. He said crime includes not only serious offenses, but quality-of-life issues, such as aggressive panhandlers, that officers frequently don’t have time to address.

The discussion on police staffing comes as voters will decide the fate of Measure G, Modesto’s one-half percent sales tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot. Though it’s a general tax and can be used for any general government purpose, city officials say they will use the tax increase to implement Modesto’s Safer Neighborhoods Initiative. The initiative calls for spending nearly all of the tax on increasing public safety resources, such as hiring 47 police officers, 12 detectives, seven sergeants and four lieutenants.

The Modesto Police Department also has struggled recently to remain at full staffing, as it has lost officers to retirement and others have left for better-paying jobs with Bay Area agencies. The council in February approved pay raises totaling 6 percent, as well as one-time incentive pay for officers in an effort to keep and recruit them. The department is regaining officers.