MPOA, residents worry about MPD low numbers, ask council for help

MARTINEZ, Calif. – If Martinez Police Department numbers keep dropping, the city could be faced with contracting for some public safety services, said Officer Mike Estanol, public information officer for the Martinez Police Officers Association (MPOA).

MPOA has been warning city officials that the department is having trouble filling persistent vacancies and keeping the officers it does hire. Retention rates has dropped to 37 percent, with only 31 of the department’s 37 positions filled.

While the officers’ labor representative organization has been meeting in closed session with city officials, Estanol said some of those conversations, as well as those outside those meetings, have led some members of the MPOA to say they don’t trust the process.

However, the way the talks have been characterized lets MPOA talk to the Council about the issues, he said.

Among them are the city’s finances, the upcoming increases in California Public Employees Retirement System payments and a one time and ongoing costs of the dissolution of the Martinez and Pleasant Hill Joint Facilities Agreement (JFA) after CalPERS decided Martinez employees needed to have paid into Social Security, and were not exempt under the agreement.

“We were not part of the JFA,” he said, but those payments will affect police officers.

Estanol said Chief Majit Sappal hasn’t determined how many more officers he can lose before he would recommend contracting for services.

But even at current levels of staffing, the department isn’t filling Martinez’s needs, he said. “We have to get the numbers up. We’re barely holding to basic services.”

His contentions were supported Wednesday by a number of people who spoke to the Martinez City Council during the public comment portion of the meeting.

That time period is reserved for people to bring up issues that aren’t on the agenda. Because the topics aren’t scheduled for Council consideration, they can’t be discussed and no action can be taken that night. However, the Council can decide to put matters on future meeting agendas or ask staff members to research the topic.

One was Doug Stewart, who has moved to Arizona after spending years leading a homeless outreach in Contra Costa County.

“I came 800 miles to support these guys. They did a lot for me,” he told the Council. “My concern is they are paid a lot lower.” He said Martinez officers are paid $20,000 a year less than officers working “up the road” in other area departments.

“I love every one of those men,” he said of those with whom he worked in trying to get homeless people off the streets. At times, he would be at the Martinez marina and other “bad places,” but when he was with Martinez police officers, he always felt safe, he said.

But he needed Martinez police at another time, and they came through. He was supposed to be watching his toddler, but fell asleep, and the child escaped while he dozed. He awoke and discovered his child was safe, protected by one of the local officers.

If the decline in numbers and public safety services continue, Stewart warned, “It’s going to affect us as it affects them.”

Stacy McPherson said the department’s dispatch center is understaffed, too. It should have eight dispatchers, and because it doesn’t officers often have to be pulled in to answer phone calls, she said.

“The entire department is understaffed,” she said. “We need staffing and pay equity.”

She told the Council that the department spends thousands on new officers’ training, only to see them leave for better paying jobs.

The mother of a police officer from a different department told how her son died while filling in a shift for another officer, and called the situation at Martinez Police Department “a travesty.”

She reminded the Council that no campus in the city has a school resource officer, and the city no longer has an officer to deal with its homeless population.

“It’s not our job to tell you where to get the money from. That’s your job,” she said.

She was one of several who said instead of funding the police department, the city spent money on transforming one of the Waterfront Park playing fields into one that can accommodate the Martinez Clippers, a professional baseball team in the independent Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs.

However, Mayor Rob Schroder told the audience that the $8 million renovations to the Waterfront Park came from voter-approved Measure H bond money dedicated only to park and library expenditures.

The Council also agreed to spend about $400,000 in reserves to finish the modifications in time for the March 31 opening day home game. Reserves are for one-time expenditures and emergencies, and normally aren’t used for ongoing expenses.

Still, others said the Council had “failed miserably” to prevent what they perceive as unsafe situations in Martinez, and said they supported officers’ endeavor to get paid “average pay.”

Others blamed the city’s past and present administrative staff.

Diane Boyle said that in the past, the police had a department of 43 staff members, including two school resource officers. “I don’t understand what you’re doing,” she said, saying that the reduced number of police affect children and older residents, the more vulnerable members of the community. “You keep taking and taking – when are you guys going to give?”

One urged the Council to “stop the bleeding.”

According to both the MPOA and city employee reports, command staff and at times detectives fill in patrol slots because of the shortages or the overtime that remaining officers have been working. Overtime hours are mounting.

“I’ve been trying to calm down,” said one resident, Felix Sanchez, who said the highest priority for city money should be first responders. Listing popular comic book superheroes, he said those fictional rescuers aren’t available “in our hour of need.” Instead, he said, residents depend on “our boys – and girls – in blue.”

He urged the Council to quit spending on “your cash cows and pet projects.”

Tim Platt, one of several Martinez residents who have won the right in court to have a ballot measure added to the June election that would give residents a chance to vote if privately-owned or public lands designated as open space are considered for development, also spoke.

He chided the Council for challenging that ballot measure in court, as well as its desire to put on the ballot a similar measure that limits voting to publicly-owned land, not private property.

But Rich Verilli countered, saying Platt’s organization that wants to block a housing development on the site of the former Pine Meadow golf course is contributing to the problem.

That development would add annual tax money to the city coffers, Verillit said, possibly $700,000. “That’s big to the police, or to save Alhambra Hills,” he said, mentioning land formerly owned by environmentalist John Muir that the Council has been striving to preserve. “We need $56 million on the rolls to make up the deficit.”

Scott Williams, associate pastor at Morello Hills Church who also is part of the outreach efforts to area homeless people, said Martinez officers are essential, especially since this city is the county seat, and the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, where many homeless get treatment, including for psychiatric disorders.

The psychiatric emergency center will treat then release patients. Some have been evaluated as apparently safe, but have threatened to cut the throats of those who are transporting them to shelters, Williams said.

Others who are released don’t go to shelters. “It falls on police, and it’s dangerous,” he said.

Officer Rodney Brinser had been assigned to work with the Coordinated Outreach, Referral and Engagement (CORE) team Martinez shares with Pleasant Hill. Williams is an outreach specialist on that team.

But Brinser works 12 to 15 hour shifts, Williams said. “They come in on their time off.” Those officers have helped send homeless people back to their families and have recently removed a man from a labor trafficking operation and a woman out of sex trafficking.

“I am concerned as resources dwindle, what happens to the city I love?” Williams asked.

Because the matter was not on Wednesday’s agenda, and because the city has been meeting in closed sessions with MPOA representatives, the aired concerns couldn’t be addressed directly, Schroder said.

“Each member of the Council recognizes the critical, immediate problem,” he said, both the immediate “hemorrhage” and the long term worries about recruitment and retention.

In fact, during a budget update, the panel raised the possibility of asking residents to pass a revenue measure that could increase money for police the way the 2016 half-cent sales tax generates revenue strictly for road maintenance and repairs.

“The MPOA will hear from us immediately,” he said.

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