Now in 2005 the City of Rialto in San Bernardino County went through the process of shedding its Police Department, mostly as a money saving exercise. Their department was apparently nothing out of the ordinary, any possible consequences in making the change were deemed to be negligible, so why not do the economically prudent thing and make the change? And in September of 2005 the Rialto City Council voted 4 to 1 to get rid of their cops. And within 24 hours the Sheriffs were in town and taking inventory of Rialto's law enforcement gear. Done deal, right?
Turns out that was not the case. In an article on the Lackie, Dammier & McGill site, they describe how the Rialto POA fought back and rescued a department that was for all intents and purposes already booted out the door. And what we'll discuss here are the kinds of tactics Sierra Madre might face should we decide to go down this road.
Much of the discussion in the first part of the article describes legal shenanigans the POA engaged in to stall the department's demise. The police union was helped by a City Attorney who made some atrocious calls, various Court restraining orders and injunctions, plus the POA engaged liberally in the practice they're most famous for, which is filing lawsuits. And when the City Administrator made the mistake of saying that the filing of so many lawsuits was one of the reasons for the City Council wanting to shed their litigious boys in blue, the POA went to Court and sued over that as well. Claiming that P.D. lawsuits were a reason for disbanding the department was interpreted there as being a form of "retaliation against officers protecting their rights and filing litigation." And as a result the accusation of "union busting" was hung on the Rialto City Council as well.
But all that was intended for one purpose, to buy some time. Because the real fight in the Battle of Rialto was the political one. The Police Department needed to line up support from the people of Rialto to overcome the decision made by their City Council. And the thing they relied upon most was the sympathy most citizens have for Police. In this article 3 different political tactics used by the POA are described, all of which involved the use of petitions. As in Sierra Madre, the POA felt confident that should their wishes be brought before the public, they would gain a place on the ballot and win any vote.
"... Lackie, Dammeier & McGill drafted a ballot initiative to place the issue on the next ballot of whether the City Council should have the sole authority to contract out police services without voter approval. Rialto's citizens assisted in gathering signatures for the initiative and it was submitted to the City Clerk."
"Recall petitions of two city council members were drafted and served."
Now attempting to go over the head of the City Council and in the process take away their ability to make these kinds of decisions is a pretty gutsy move. As is threatening 2 City Council members with recall. Basically the POA was engaging in some very serious challenges to the very authority of Rialto's municipal government. But in order for this to work the POA needed to have strong support from the citizens. Our Police Department had that kind of support when they initiated the petition drive to win themselves a raise. It was widely felt in Sierra Madre that the cops were vastly underpaid and deserved a pay hike. But would that same level of support and sympathy be there today should the City Council decide to get rid of them? Given the unfortunate events of the last year or so, I wouldn't automatically go to that particular assumption.
This next one is rather diabolical, though.
The City in 2003, with the assistance of the RPOA, passed a utility user's tax which passed by only 5 votes of the residents. Since the public was sold on the idea that the tax would be for public safety, and given the City's pursuit of disbanding the police department, the RPOA felt the citizens should not have to continue paying this tax. Accordingly, Lackie, Dammeier & McGill drafted a ballot initiative repealing the utility user's tax should the police department be disbanded. Since this tax amounted to over 25% of the City's general fund, this elimination, which would have easily been approved by the voters, would have been financially devastating to the City.
Now that is quite an ingenious ploy. As we have seen by the inertia displayed by our City Council on the matter of rectifying by means of a revote the botched math used in dunning Sierra Madre into voting itself a 100% UUT hike, giving up tax revenue is not something such folks do easily. And this had to have been taking by the Rialto City Hall bunch as being quite a serious threat.
But here's a thought. What if this was interpreted differently? What if the voters were told that by approving the disbanding of the SMPD they would also qualify for a tax cut? Since our police account for 52% of our General Fund expenditures (before law suit expenses, of course), there certainly would be some considerable savings here. I can imagine that some might even see this as being a kind of win-win situation.
Anyway, less than a year later, and after 7 lawsuits, 2 recall efforts, a referendum and two ballot initiatives, plus all that yapping from the deluded residents, the Rialto City Council surrendered. And not only that, they had to shell out $118,000 to pay all the RPOA's legal costs. Quite a humiliation for those guys.
Here is the lesson as I see it. In order for any POA to win, it needs a lot of support from the residents. And we saw that kind of support when this City voted itself a 100% tax hike to give our police a raise. (I didn't vote for Measure U, and to this day I regard it as having been an instance of municipal insanity to have been put it on the ballot without first doing the audits, but that's just me.) Now the public has a lot of sympathy for police. It seems to be an instinctual thing for many, and therefore a challenge to overcome. But the SMPOA has been to that well once already. And many people supported that effort because they thought it would solve all the problems and our cops would become an okey dokey local police department that everyone can like.
But is that what our fiscal sacrifices have gotten us? Or has the Sierra Madre Police Department, through its massive ticket issuing, constant and often petty law suits, surly demeanors, and those other events, squandered the support it once enjoyed here?
That this question can even be considered now is a sign of just how far they've fallen.