Throughout this mayoral election, the San Diego Police Officers Association has been happy to hear candidates recognize the need to hire more police officers, but most forums don’t provide time to explain why this is a priority.

We’ve been hearing for years that, crime is at its lowest in many decades — and that’s true. So why do we need more cops?

First, let me say that the officers at the San Diego Police Department take great pride in having reduced crime over the decades and in solving more cases with fewer officers in 2011 than in 2010, despite the more than 100 unfilled officer positions in SDPD.

But the crime rate is only one measure of a department’s performance, and it’s clear by other measures that the department is stretched thin — and that the choices we’re having to make are not in the public’s best interest.

Fewer cops means it takes longer to get to victims

One of the most broadly recognized performance measures for a police department is response times — the actual time from when a call is received in the police dispatch center to when an officer arrives on scene to handle the incident. The times are measured in categories from emergency — when there is an imminent threat to life — through minor requests for police services like recovering found property.

In San Diego, response times are on the rise in every category — even for the most serious emergencies.

In many ways, response times are a better measure of police service levels. In some cases, the department’s lack of response or slow response has been particularly egregious due to our limited staffing. They include having victims of sexual assault and business owners threatened by gang members having to wait for hours for our officers to respond to their calls for assistance.

Even if an officer couldn’t have halted the crime in progress, a slow response makes crime victims feel victimized twice — first by the suspect, then again when they learn no units were available to handle the call when it was received.

Something’s gotta give — and it does

Anyone who’s worked in a severely downsized environment also knows that service slips when each person simply has too many duties to cover. With the current low staffing levels, even when officers do respond promptly to a call for service, their options are often limited by staffing.

Recently, officers and their supervisor responded to a disturbance at a residence that resembled a garbage dump. Pill and alcohol bottles littered the premises, where drunken adults argued as their four children slept on the floor without any furniture or bedding.

Officers evaluated the scene and determined the children needed to be taken to the Polinsky Center for their safety. At that point, another radio call came in about a woman being beaten in the street with a hammer. There were not enough officers on the street to handle both calls, so the children’s needs were placed on hold while officers responded to the higher-priority emergency.

These types of decisions are taking place every day with the current staffing levels — and they affect every area of the department. Detectives with unmanageable case loads are forced to cherry pick the cases they are going to investigate. Patrol supervisors must tell investigative units they can’t provide patrol officers to back up their action plans. For vice detectives, this means they are often unable to carry out sting operations on prostitution rings that plague some areas of our city and make teenage girls captives of their pimps. It means narcotic teams don’t have patrol officers available to make arrests following their buy/bust operations.

In other words, we’ve been forced to scale back on proactive policing — the very tactics that have helped us bring our crime rate to historic lows. We’ve eliminated narcotic teams in Mid-City and Central Division so those detectives could be returned to patrol operations. The department’s DUI team, which focused mainly on investigating and apprehending drug- and alcohol-addled drivers, was quietly eliminated.

And even with the diversion of so many investigative units to patrol duty, this doesn’t mean our patrol units have been beefed up. The fact is, SDPD no longer has any minimum staffing requirements at patrol division — meaning we know how many cops we need to cover a certain area, but we’re not meeting those levels. This places both citizens and officers in danger.

Finally, the future of our police force suffers when we understaff today. When we have unfilled sergeant positions in patrol units, newer officers are not getting the mentoring and training they need to develop into officers who make legally and morally sound decisions. This can result in lawsuits — and far more importantly, in decisions that erode the trust of the community we serve.

The adequacy of police staffing can’t be gauged simply by looking at response times and reported crime statistics; its impact needs to be examined by looking at the department’s service to the community as a whole.

Safety and justice are central to our quality of life. San Diegans expect and deserve a police force that’s able to protect what we value in our great city.

Brian R. Marvel is the president of the San Diego Poilce Officers Association.

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