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Sheriff’s response times slower in unincorporated areas

Officials point to budget cuts as primary culprit

Posted: January 29, 2013 6:49 p.m.
Updated: January 29, 2013 6:49 p.m.

A recent audit indicates sheriff's patrol emergency response times are slower in unincorporated areas than in cities, such as Santa Clarita, that contracted with the county for law enforcement services. Signal photo by Jonathan Pobre

Sheriff’s Department emergency response time is slower in unincorporated areas than in contract cities, a situation brought on, in part, by budget cuts that totaled more than $360 million in the last three years, officials say.

County supervisors have put the squeeze on the sheriff, saying the discrepancy in response time is unacceptable and calling for remedies, which could include special districts outside cities to handle law-enforcement duties.

An audit of the Sheriff’s Department released late last week shows deputies took, on average, about one minute longer to respond to emergency calls in unincorporated areas than in contract cities during the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

Response times for both routine and priority calls were also longer, on average.

Unincorporated Santa Clarita Valley areas patrolled by sheriff’s deputies include Acton, Agua Dulce, Castaic, West Ranch, Stevenson Ranch, Val Verde, parts of Canyon Country and parts of Saugus.

Sheriff’s officials have attributed longer response times to more difficult road conditions and the fact that unincorporated areas are more spread out.

But another reason for slower response times is fewer unincorporated-area patrols, said Sheriff Lee Baca.

The sheriff told supervisors last week that budget cuts have strained the number of patrols the department has for unincorporated areas. 

Part of this strain is the elimination of overtime for deputies. Some stations had deputies work overtime to provide the proper amount of patrols.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said the department has faced three straight years of cuts — $128 million in 2010, $96 million in 2011 and $140 million in 2012.

The department is making changes to compensate for the loss of patrols in unincorporated areas, Whitmore said.

These include potentially taking 22 deputies off of gang enforcement activities and up to another 90 deputies from other areas and putting them on patrol.

The department is also limited in where it can cut its budget, Whitmore said. Services cannot be cut to cities that contract with the department for law-enforcement services, he said.

In addition, the Sheriff’s Department is not allowed under state law to charge contract cities for some countywide, non-patrol services such as homicide or narcotics investigations, which mean those specialized services are made available to contract cities at no additional charge.

According to the audit, the Sheriff’s Department spent about $552 million providing services to contract cities in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. But the department earned only $371 million in revenue from those cities.

The city of Santa Clarita contracts all its police services through the Sheriff’s Department. The total amount of services needed, and therefore the total value of the contract, is set on an annual basis, according to city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz.

The city will spend about $19.3 million to contract Sheriff’s Department services this fiscal year, according to the city’s contract with the department. The adopted city budget is around $183 million for the same period.

Whitmore said the department uses a specific formula to determine the amount to charge for its services, and prices for services are nearly uniform across all contract cities.

Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Capt. Paul Becker said the station cannot make cuts to services provided to the city once a contractual agreement is in place.

“If there are any cuts from the budget, I am forced to impose those on unincorporated patrol,” Becker said.

To offset those cuts, Becker said, he has taken crime-prevention deputies from unincorporated areas around Santa Clarita and put them on patrol.

Becker said he used to be able to patrol unincorporated areas by giving deputies overtime, but an edict from the Sheriff’s Department against overtime now eliminates that option.

Some Los Angeles County supervisors have taken issue with the idea of eliminating unincorporated patrols.

Supervisor Gloria Molina accused Baca of “stealing” from unincorporated areas during the board’s Jan. 22 meeting.
“I don’t know what else to call it,” Molina said.

Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, said cuts to patrols should be the last resort for the Sheriff’s Department.

“We are trying to work with the sheriff to impress upon (him) how vital frontline law enforcement is to us,” Pembedjian said.

Pembedjian also said she does not see the interests of unincorporated areas and contract cities as mutually exclusive.

“This is not an issue of contract cities versus unincorporated areas,” Pembedjian said. “This really is about working with the sheriff to utilize and prioritize his resources.”

Though the Board of Supervisors sets the budget for the Sheriff’s Department, Baca, as an elected official, has discretion on managing that budget.

Supervisors unanimously ordered a forensic audit of the department’s budget at their Jan. 22 meeting.

During their meeting Tuesday, supervisors voted 4-0, with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky abstaining, to examine the feasibility of setting up community service districts to provide police protection and law enforcement for communities in unincorporated areas.

The county generally provides basic services — water, sewage, fire and law enforcement protection — to unincorporated areas. However, those areas do have the option of setting up smaller districts to oversee such services if enough people in an area support doing so. These smaller entities are referred to as community service districts.

The board will hear a report within the next 60 days on the feasibility of such a plan.
On Twitter @LukeMMoney




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