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Monday, April 9, 2007 | For the last two years, as dozens of police officers have left the San Diego Police Department, the city has pulled police officers out of some of the region’s most cutting-edge public safety programs.

The city is now no longer represented on at least two major crime task forces that it contributed officers to until 2006. The SDPD has also reduced the number of its investigators on several other task forces, a move that has sparked criticism from the local law enforcement agencies who have been left to pick up the slack.

SDPD Taken From Task

  • The Issue: For the last two years, the San Diego Police Department has been pulling investigators from regional crime task forces. The city says that, due to a lack of sworn personnel, those officers are needed to answer 911 calls.
  • What It Means: Officials on the regional task forces, which investigate issues such as Internet crimes against children and criminal fugitives, say the withdrawals are having an impact on their work.
  • The Bigger Picture: The San Diego Police Department is currently in contract talks with the city. The department is losing an average of 14 officers a month, due largely to pay and benefits issues.

Made up of law enforcement officers from around the region, crime task forces are multi-jurisdictional teams set up to tackle certain types of crimes or certain issues within law enforcement. There are many such task forces in San Diego dealing with everything from Internet crimes against children to the sale of narcotics.

The SDPD’s exodus from task forces has come as a direct result of the shortage of police officers, city officials said. The police department is currently nearly 300 people shy of its target for sworn officers, and that means resources have had to be prioritized, said Fred Sainz, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders. That has meant pulling officers out of task forces so they can patrol the streets and answer 911 calls, Sainz said.

“It’s just a simple reality that you’re not going to be able to be all things to all people,” Sainz said.

Representatives of other local law enforcement agencies that work at the task forces said the loss of SDPD detectives has had a marked effect on their ability to investigate crimes. Keith G. Burt, a deputy San Diego district attorney and project director at the Computer and Technology Crime High Tech Response Team, said the San Diego Police Department recently pulled out the two detectives it had assigned to the team.

That team now comprises 18 investigators, down from 20 a year ago and includes representatives from all over San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties.

“When you have two really skilled and experienced detectives, losing them definitely has an impact,” Burt said.

Those sentiments were echoed by Russ Moore of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Moore is the sergeant in charge of the Fugitive Task Force, a group that specializes in hunting down fugitive criminals in San Diego County.

The Fugitive Task Force used to have three San Diego Police Department detectives on its team. Now there are none. Moore said apart from the increased workload for the 20 task force members who remain, the departure of the SDPD contingent had other impacts on his team’s ability to effectively do its job.

“You lose years of expertise,” Moore said. “These were the guys that knew the inroads to San Diego police; they were our contacts with San Diego police. We get a lot of our investigations from San Diego police, we get a lot of our fugitives from San Diego police and they were our conduit. Obviously that bridge isn’t there any more.”

Jill Olen, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ public safety chief, said the city’s shifting of priorities hasn’t made the citizens of San Diego any less safe. However, she acknowledged that the cutbacks in personnel will mean task force investigators take longer to solve cases. In a perfect world, she said, San Diego would offer the task forces all the help they needed.

San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne refuted the suggestion that the task forces that have lost SDPD officers are suffering as a result. He said the remaining members of the task force will have to “work a little harder” — just like officers in the San Diego Police Department.

Lansdowne and other city officials sought to portray task forces as something of a “luxury item” for the police force. Rulette Armstead, a retired San Diego assistant police chief who now teaches on law enforcement administration at San Diego State University, said that task forces are usually the first programs that suffer when police officer numbers are low. Armstead said the reduction in task force participation illustrates how the police department’s staffing issues are affecting everyday San Diegans.

“There are some things that the citizens of San Diego aren’t going to get. That’s cut and dry,” Armstead said.

But Burt of the technology crime task force said the work his team does should not be considered an added extra for police forces, especially considering the types of high-tech crimes his task force is going after.

“When you talk about where everybody perceives the future of crime going — that’s not a luxury. That is something that we see as necessary so that you don’t fall behind the curve,” he said.

Indeed, some of the programs affected by the pullout of investigators include task forces that tackle San Diego’s biggest crime problems.

The Regional Auto Theft Task Force used to have one SDPD detective. That detective was pulled out last year and the county’s largest city now has no representative on a 10-person body that includes officers from just about every major player in law enforcement in San Diego. In addition, the Chula Vista and Carlsbad police departments both contribute officers to the task force.

In 2005, San Diego had the eighth-highest auto theft rate in the nation, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

“I find it tragic that the county’s largest city has such a diminished role in the regional task forces,” said A.W. Dubois, a detective with the SDPD’s Identity Theft Unit. “The department that used to take the lead in regional activities is now relegated to playing a much smaller or nonexistent role.”

The San Diego Police Department is still represented on some other regional crime task forces including the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, which is overseen by an SDPD detective. Police officials stressed that the removal of its investigators from the task forces, though a necessary evil, strengthens the department’s presence on the streets of San Diego. Every officer who is not serving on a task force is, instead, answering 911 calls or policing the city’s neighborhoods, Sainz said.

As soon as the city’s staffing levels get back on track, Sainz said, its priorities may well shift again and the police department will again get involved in the regional task forces. For the time being, however, such programs are a luxury the SDPD can’t afford.

“It’s kind of like, if you only make $10,000 a year, not being able to go on that trip to Europe, in spite of the fact that your friends are going on the trip to Europe,” Sainz said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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