Police Salaries and Pensions Push California City to Brink – NYTimes.com

A California city that filed for bankruptcy in 2001 after a developer secured a $10 million judgment against it, Desert Hot Springs was featured in the NYT for its fiscal troubles.

The city, Desert Hot Springs, population 27,000, is slowly edging toward bankruptcy, largely because of police salaries and skyrocketing pension costs, but also because of years of spending and unrealistic revenue estimates. It is mostly the police, though, who have found themselves in the cross hairs recently.

“I would not venture to say they are overpaid,” said Robert Adams, the acting city manager since August. “What I would say is that we can’t pay them.”

Public safety was once considered a basic urban service – perhaps the primary reason for incorporation. Police (and fire) pensions are more costly than others because workers are allowed to retire earlier, and because the city pays into a pension fund instead of social security, for which many public safety retirees are not eligible. It’s not hard use simple figures to paint police benefits as “generous” or “unsustainable,” particular in small, working-class cities like Desert Hot Springs. But the short-term gaps that emerge from bad policy and economic cycles belies the fundamental sustainability of well-managed pension funds over the long-term. The fact that so many cities are being dragged down by pension obligations speaks more to poor management and the ominous fiscal picture of cities in general.

Police unions say the fault lies with state and local politicians who failed to adequately fund the pension system over the years, and inflated benefits during boom years. Others wonder whether such salaries and pensions were ever affordable, particularly in cities as small and struggling as this. In Desert Hot Springs, for example, for every dollar that the city pays its police officers, another 36 cents must be sent to Calpers to fund their pensions.

Read: Police Salaries and Pensions Push California City to Brink – NYTimes.com.

More in Oakland relying on private security – SFGate

As burglaries, home invasions, carjackings and assaults creep into Oakland neighborhoods less accustomed to crime, residents have built fences, armed alarms and installed security cameras.

Oakland has been dealing with a resurgence of crime, particularly in the rapidly-gentrifying areas of the city, including Temescal. Some neighborhoods have also hired private security firms (some of which use armed guards) to patrol their communities, and one of the most rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods in the city, Temescal, has been exploring doing the same. In addition to rising crime (and specifically rising crime in wealthier neighborhoods), Oakland has suffered from deep budget cuts to its police department, resulting in

Oakland police appreciate the help, said Officer Johnna Watson, a police spokeswoman.

“We are all striving for the same goal, and that is reducing crime,” she said. “The security companies are an extra set of eyes that allow the community to be empowered.”

Putting more police on the streets is the city’s top priority, said Sean Maher, a spokesman for Quan. There are now 615 officers patrolling the city of roughly 400,000 people – down from a peak of 830 officers in January 2009, according to police records.

“When communities get organized and rally around a cause like public safety, it is incredibly effective,” Maher said. “It is unfortunate that people feel forced to do this. We want a fully staffed Police Department.”

“Cities are cash-strapped, and they are finding it difficult to keep up with the costs of a municipal police force,” Wexler said. “And if you want more police, you really have to ask yourself this question: What are cities prepared to do?”

Still, Wexler said, private security companies are no substitute for a competent police force.

“When you are talking about municipal police, you are talking about public officials and holding them to a high standard,” he said. “If private security is involved, they should be held to an equally high standard.

When residents pay for services to be provided privately, what happens to their demand for the government to fully fund those services? Does having private security in wealthier neighborhoods in Oakland deprive other communities of the collective effort (and willingness to pay) for public policing throughout the city? The most crime-plagued areas of Oakland don’t have residents who can afford to replace necessary policing with private officers. What are the consequences of private citizens channeling their energy into private services? K-12 schools are perhaps the most obvious comparison, but perhaps education is a more divisible product than policing. You never know when you’ll be in a neighborhood that doesn’t have private security, but you can control whether your kids ever go to the public schools.

“Oaklanders deserve more safety, and to the extent that citizens can generate it for themselves and their neighborhood, I applaud that effort,” said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf. “But it does not excuse the city for failing to provide the most basic element of government. It is not a substitute.”

Read: More in Oakland relying on private security – SFGate.

In the community meetings held to discuss the possibility of private security in Temescal, many residents pointed out the other obvious dangers: racial profiling and the lower standard of accountability private actors have then public police officers.

Several residents spoke about their concerns over racial profiling, especially after the death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager gunned down by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

During the meeting, a Latino resident and a transgender resident questioned the safety of those that do not fit the description of an “average citizen.” Both spoke to the idea that they could be considered outsiders in their own neighborhood and would actually feel less safe with private security.

“I believe that increasing police presence in a neighborhood only increases safety for some people,” said Kane.

Read: Private security divides Temescal