Maintaining public safety has become the central argument behind increasing the city’s sales tax. If San Diego doesn’t raise it and faces a more than $70 million deficit next year, Mayor Jerry Sanders promises to idle more fire engines and lay off police officers.

“We simply won’t have an option,” Sanders said at a recent press conference. “We will be cutting sworn police officers and we will be browning out more stations as we move forward.”

The public safety departments represent about half of the city’s $1.1 billion operating budget, making it an almost inevitable target especially since city politicians have tried to spare police and fire in years past. If the city eliminates another $70 million budget gap without touching public safety, it would severely cut other services like libraries and parks.

Sales tax supporters argue that further cuts to the Police Department would harm public safety. But that hasn’t happened with cuts to date, according to the department’s own performance measures.

Police response times for the highest priority calls have improved from previous years. Crime levels for the most serious offenses continue to fall. Officers are solving crimes more often. Police are on track to file more cases with county prosecutors this year than the previous two.

Sales tax supporters instead highlight the budget cuts’ impacts on the Fire-Rescue Department: Losing engines has slowed the firefighters’ response times, especially in northern neighborhoods, and, in one recent case, may have contributed to a toddler’s death in Mira Mesa.

Police have blunted the impact of previous budget cuts by maintaining patrols at the expense of more specialized units. They axed boating and equestrian units, pulled out of regional task forces and shifted investigative units to street duty.

Today, San Diego has fewer full-time police officers per capita than nearly all of the nation’s largest cities, but more per capita than half of California’s largest cities, according to the most recent state and federal data.

The Police Department also gave some duties traditionally filled by police officers to volunteers and invested in streamlining technology, such as online systems that allow citizens to report crimes and pay for permits.

“We’ve been very efficient to maintain services,” said Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, but added, “There’s a limit to what we can do.”

In December, the city cut public safety by the largest extent in the last decade. Police lost special units and civilian employees. Firefighters idled eight engines on a rolling basis. Lifeguards eliminated some patrols.

These cuts followed years of shrinking the public safety work force, usually through attrition. In 2008, the Police Department had 2,818 budgeted positions. Today, it’s at 2,539. The Fire-Rescue Department had 1,201 budgeted positions back then. It now has 1,148.

Sanders, Lansdowne and Brian Marvel, the police officers union president, say they don’t want to gamble that they could keep cutting officers and still count on crime dropping. Both Marvel and Lansdowne said having fewer officers would slow response times. Lansdowne went a step further, saying it would increase crime.

“We’re down to that level where any more cuts would have a real impact on the city,” Lansdowne said. “I think you’ll see impact on crime rates … a higher propensity of people to commit crimes” if police take longer to arrive.

This underlying issue — the relationship between crime rates and police levels — has puzzled criminologists for decades. How the public perceives the existence of some crimes, such as drug abuse, can depend upon the attention that police give them.

“It becomes very, very difficult to measure the effect of adding or subtracting more police,” said Richard McCleary, a crime statistician and professor at the University of California, Irvine. “The issue becomes like a tree falling in the forest. Does it make a noise?”

San Diego’s falling crime rates follow a national decline in crime since the early 1990s. Marvel, the union president, said part of the local drop has been exaggerated by having fewer officers to write the crime reports that contribute to the city’s statistical measure.

Police officers are indeed writing fewer crime reports than in previous years. But it’s not clear whether they’re writing fewer reports because there are fewer officers or because fewer crimes are happening.

Advocating for cuts to police staffing would be a risky campaign move in San Diego’s sales tax debate, particularly if crime began rising. Sales tax opponents have instead promoted how the city could maintain public safety funding without increasing the sales tax. They’ve said the city could save money by outsourcing more services or cutting politicians’ office budgets.

“My position all along has been that this is a false choice to voters. You’ll either get shot, drown or burn if you don’t approve a tax increase,” said T.J. Zane, president and CEO of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, which opposes the ballot measure. “It’s a sham.”

Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a local think tank, questioned whether anyone would talk about the police performance along the campaign trail this fall.

“I doubt the public is going to focus at all on the quantitative measures of what’s happening,” Bruvold said. “The campaigns are going to stress the death of the kid in Mira Mesa or any other adverse outcome that seems related to the financial stress of the city.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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