A strong start on community policing in Sacramento

Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers presented strategies to improve community policing to the City Council on Tuesday night.
Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers presented strategies to improve community policing to the City Council on Tuesday night. Sacramento Bee file

Police Chief Sam Somers presented an expansive – and expensive – list of options to ramp up community policing in Sacramento, both to reduce crime and increase public trust.

Now, the City Council should set priorities among the strategies, aiming for a better police force, not necessarily a bigger one.

There are some good ideas among those Somers outlined to council members Tuesday night. It would be helpful for dispatchers and officers to get more training to identify signs of mental illness and for more officers to know a second language. Body cameras for officers are worth pursuing.

It’s important to improve recruiting to build a more diverse police force that better reflects the city. It’s worth looking at financial incentives to get more officers to live in Sacramento. Reopening public counters at three substations would strengthen neighborhood ties.

These initiatives come with a cost – a total of as much as $860,000 upfront and an ongoing cost of $3.9 million a year.

While Somers isn’t requesting the money in his budget, council members have made clear that public safety is their top priority so will likely consider some additions in spending plans for 2015-16 and beyond.

The most expensive proposal – and one of the most controversial – is to significantly beef up the police force. The department has 723 sworn officers, but that’s still 81 fewer officers than the pre-Great Recession peak. Somers put forward a goal to reach 1,000 sworn officers by 2035 – adding 15 officers a year for the next 20 years. That would cost $1.4 million a year, plus vehicles and equipment. With that price tag alone, it should get close scrutiny.

Led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, the council asked for the police chief’s report amid the national protests over the grand jury decisions not to indict officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Somers disclosed that the department has agreed to take part in a three-year national study being done by UCLA researchers on racial profiling and use of force.

Still, several residents complained that the report didn’t address their concerns about police brutality against protesters and others, and didn’t focus enough on the department’s accountability. Johnson said the community will have a chance to add to the to-do list. But those activists calling for fewer officers on the street don’t speak for many Sacramentans, who are pleased with the significant drop in violent crime.

We also have to keep in mind that public safety isn’t just the responsibility of police. For instance, there would be fewer confrontations with the homeless or mentally ill if there were more shelters and treatment options. There would be fewer young people in gangs with enhanced youth programs.

What Somers has given the city is a good starting point to come up with a strategy that works in each neighborhood, that taxpayers can afford and that will get Sacramento closer to being a national model for community policing.