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It’s hard to imagine a more core responsibility of local government than law enforcement and fire protection. More than half the city of San Diego’s $1.1 billion day-to-day budget goes toward public safety and the City Charter even enshrines police services as the city’s top priority.

Yet aside from a brief flurry of interest earlier this month, San Diego’s two mayoral candidates have largely ignored the issue.

“There’s no sort of thought that’s going into this at all,” said Joshua Chanin, a public affairs professor who specializes in urban policing at San Diego State University.

Instead, Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner have focused most of the campaign on issues where they’re unlikely to make a significant impact.

Take job creation. State and national trends, economists say, by and large drive economic development — not city policies. San Diego’s mayor also has no formal role in K-12 public education. Yet both Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner have put jobs and schools front and center in their platforms.

If Filner and DeMaio aren’t focusing on public safety, it’s likely because voters aren’t, either. A public poll U-T San Diego sponsored last week found jobs and education are voters’ top issues in the mayor’s race. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed deemed the economy the most significant issue. Schools were right behind with 27 percent. Crime tied for a distant sixth in the poll; only 3 percent of respondents named it their highest priority.

San Diego’s low crime rate could explain why public safety doesn’t register as a top concern for voters. Last year, law enforcement agencies from the nation’s 15 largest cities reported about 380 major crimes per 10,000 residents. In San Diego, the nation’s eighth largest city, police reported about 260.

But San Diego does have major public safety issues to consider:

Police Misconduct and Favoritism. The department had a series of high-profile cases in 2011, most seriously a traffic cop who received more than eight years in state prison for soliciting sexual bribes while on duty. The cases highlighted problems with departmental oversight. More recently, the department has faced allegations of favoritism in the handling of an incident involving a police captain’s son and ticket fixing for a deputy district attorney.

A New Top Cop. Filner has committed to keeping current Chief William Lansdowne. DeMaio said he’d decide on Lansdowne’s future once elected. Regardless, Landsdowne is 68 years old and unlikely to stay for the next mayor’s full term. Fire Chief Javier Mainar’s fate is uncertain, too. Filner’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Mainar and DeMaio said he won’t discuss staffing until after the election. DeMaio and Mainar had a notable run-in two years ago when the chief accused DeMaio of “lying about my department” over a pay boost rank-and-file firefighters receive above their base salaries.

Community Policing. San Diego used to be an international leader in “community policing,” which focuses on crime prevention as much as crime response. Now the department has conceded it moved away from that approach during the city’s pension and financial crises.

Wildfires. Twice in the last decade wildfires have ravaged the city, and every year there’s risk for another. Day-to-day fire services remain at less than full strength.

Staffing and Standards. Though there are lots of arguments about the import of these statistics to the quality of public safety in San Diego, the city has one of the lowest ratios of police officers to residents of any big city in the country and fails to meet national standards for fire response times. The city needs to build and staff 10 new fire stations to fill gaps in coverage, according to a consultant report from last year.

Of the two candidates, Filner has broader and more concrete public safety ideas. He wants to hire more than 150 additional police officers, dedicate more resources to community policing and improve fire response, as part of the public safety plan he released this month. Filner’s police ideas derive largely from the department’s proposal to increase funding by $66 million over the next five years. Filner also has the support of all the city’s public safety unions.

Chanin, the SDSU professor, said Filner’s plan focuses too much on police recruitment and retention to the exclusion of more innovative issues. For instance, Lansdowne, Chanin said, talks persuasively about the need for better police response to mental health calls. Including an approach to mental health policing in his plans would have been natural for Filner, the Democrat in the race, Chanin said.

“I continue to be totally unimpressed from the Filner plan,” he said. “It’s exactly what I would expect to see from someone who’s courting the cops.”

But at least Filner has a formal plan, Chanin said. DeMaio has endorsed the Police Department’s five-year funding proposal, but doesn’t provide many other ideas for what he wants to do. That’s out of character for someone who has felled trees to put his proposals for the city budget, environment, schools, economic development, volunteering and road repairs in writing.

“This is a guy who has a 50-page plan for everything, and yet there’s nothing,” Chanin said.

DeMaio’s budget plan does include significant pay cuts for firefighters.

Even though public safety comprises a significant chunk of municipal budgets nationwide, San Diego isn’t alone among big cities in seeing its political importance wane, said Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Massachusetts.

Violent crime is down across the country from previous decades and people are feeling safer, he said. Local governments also must contend with fewer resources to provide services.

“In the long run, I think we may regret being complacent about violent crime,” Levin said. “But in the short term, I think we’ve turned our attention away from crime-fighting measures because the money is running out.”

Keegan Kyle contributed reporting.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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