By Corina De La Torre
It’s that time of the year when California municipalities begin drafting spending plans for the upcoming fiscal year. It’s an opportunity not just for the community to get involved, but it’s also an opportunity for cities and counties to reassess their practices and begin investing in services that make sense. It is time to re-evaluate what public safety means in Salinas and take into account crime statistics to make effective changes to uplift our community.
According to the latest Salinas Police Department Annual Crime Report, there were a total of 5,291 crimes reported in 2021, a 3.2% decrease since 2020 and a 5.11% decrease since 2019. Despite this positive trend, SPD representatives continue to promote the narrative that more sworn officers are needed to protect our community. If that were the case, how is it that crime is going down even though the number of sworn officers has remained flat? In addition, California’s Department of Justice database reported violent crime throughout Monterey County has been going down since 2011, with a historic drop in violent crimes reported in 2019 and 2020.
But these facts are not deterring the Salinas Police Department’s brass from efforts to increase its ranks. During the Jan. 24 city council meeting, Salinas Police Chief Roberto Filice presented an administrative report on police officer staffing, stating the need for an additional 73 officers, which would bring the total to 220 officers to “adequately” serve the community. There was no acknowledgment of the decrease in local crime. But even if the department personnel budget were to grow as Chief Filice is envisioning, it would not be a guarantee that the services would be “adequate,” since SPD has stated that some services and response times will be impacted due to the inability to recruit and train officers.
The Salinas Police Department currently has 46 vacancies, according to Filice. Most of the reasons for the lack of staffing are due to internal department issues such as recruitment strategies, medical issues, personal leave, resignation and retirements. Still, some of the blame for challenges in filling the 46 currently vacant positions has been placed on the national rhetoric around defunding the police. This poor explanation is not taking into account the challenges that all employers in all sectors of the economy are facing to recruit workers. Unfortunately, it is creating division between police officers and residents who are demanding greater accountability and a broader plan to address community safety. We expect our leaders to address the needs of our community through data-driven decision-making and not based on fear tactics.
Salinas residents have been advocating for the reallocation of police department funds and investment in other sectors as an alternative way to promote public safety. Some of the requests have included an increase in accessible library and community services, the expansion of public Wi-Fi zones, maximizing affordable housing, the development of cultural programming, and improvements in infrastructure and traffic safety. In 2022, the Cops Don’t Stop Violence report indicated that safety can be improved by satisfying needs in communities that experience greater socioeconomic inequities — and police violence — through the improvement in quality jobs, income, built environment and education. Therefore, the most vibrant communities aren’t the ones with the most police officers; the most vibrant communities address a broad set of resident-based needs.
There have not been any major cuts to law enforcement in Salinas in recent years. Unfilled positions have been restructured. New technology has been approved by Salinas City Council to help SPD’s efforts, claiming this technology will help solve crimes, which has been implemented after robust community discussions in the past year. Moreover, the SPD budget has accounted for 43-45% of the overall annual city budget for the past five years and hovers around $57 million in the 2022-23 budget.
Addressing Chief Filice’s staffing call would cost an additional $16 million and would bring the share of the city’s budget designated to the police department to about 54% of the available budget. This would take away valuable resources from residents, furthering an antiquated view of public safety and fueling the false conservative hysteria that defunding the police would increase crime. However, a recent study that analyzed 109 police departments across the country showed that 91 of them increased their budgets by at least 2% from 2019-2022. And even if some budgets did go down, several other studies have shown that there is no relationship between year-to-year spending and crime rates.
Salinas cannot afford to continue to waste taxpayer money on antiquated and discredited solutions to public safety. As a community, we need to reimagine and redefine what public safety means in Salinas. Our collective welfare is truly rooted in unity — through investment in community-based solutions and meeting the needs of residents where they are — and not a bloated police department budget. It is a critical time for not only our representatives to take action but for our residents to engage in the process and hold our elected officials accountable through attending city council meetings, budget meetings, and reaching out to individual district leaders.
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