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San Bernardino police find themselves battling economic forces

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. >> Detective Ryan Wicks trained the headlights of his Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor on a young man spotted fleeing local gang members and climbed out of his car, a battered black-and-white cruiser of mid-2000s vintage. The odometer stood north of 95,000 miles. A rear fender was scarred by the belt buckles of hundreds of suspects who had been spread-eagled against it.

Having uncovered a butcher knife and delivered a warning, Wicks settled back into the driver’s seat and felt something blocking a foot. He looked down.

“My speaker’s on the floor,” he said.

The nation knows the San Bernardino Police Department for its heroism on Dec. 2, when its officers led a perilous and widely praised search for a husband-and-wife terrorist team that had fatally shot 14 people and wounded 22 others at a holiday party. But the daily reality for San Bernardino’s finest is entirely different: a corps savaged by budget cuts, rattletrap equipment, crushing workloads and sunken morale.

Since the city went bankrupt in 2012, its tax base swept away by the Great Recession, officers have retired or moved to other departments in droves. “We had an exodus, everyone jumping ship,” Wicks said.

Jarrod Burguan, the department’s chief and a 24-year veteran of the force, said the slide had been tough. “We’d never been an agency before that people left for other departments — the type of place where people said, ‘I don’t like working here,’” he said. “If anything, we attracted guys because it was a place where it’s fun being a cop.”

There are signs, however, of an inflection point for the struggling force. In November, Burguan proposed a five-year, $50.6 million rebuilding plan, adding officers — and, yes, new cruisers — to combat what FBI data say is one of California’s highest crime rates.

San Bernardino has long been a cop’s kind of town, where drugs, gang wars and the manifold problems of a large lower-income population gave rookies more action — and valuable experience — than a cushy suburban assignment would ever offer. A city of about 215,000 people, half Hispanic, San Bernardino suffered in past decades as its biggest employers — an Air Force base, a nearby steel mill — were shuttered. At the same time, criminal gangs began moving into the city, forced from Los Angeles by a police crackdown and gentrifying slums.

Today, about 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Hispanic, black and white nationalist gangs claim portions of poorer northern and western neighborhoods and account for about 9 in 10 homicides, said Lt. Richard Lawhead, the department’s spokesman.

Hispanic gangs controlled by a prison gang, the Mexican Mafia, ship and sell heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs smuggled from Mexico about 100 miles south.

San Bernardino once deployed a much larger force against that threat. But that created a huge obligation to the state-run pension system to finance an unusually generous retirement package. Officers can retire at age 50 and collect 3 percent of their highest salary for every year of service. Many stay longer, further raising pension obligations. In 2000, the city contribution to the state pension fund equaled 14 percent of police officers’ and firefighters’ pay. By 2012, it was 39 percent.

The Great Recession saddled San Bernardino with one of the nation’s highest home-foreclosure rates and gutted its property-tax revenues. By the time officials declared bankruptcy in August 2012, police officers had agreed to shoulder more of their pension costs, reducing their take-home pay by nearly 15 percent. Amid talk that the county sheriff’s department might take over policing, San Bernardino officers fled to more secure jobs.

At its peak in 2008, the department employed 346 sworn officers. Today, there are about 220 — a 36 percent reduction.

The effect of those cuts has been palpable. The narcotics and vice division lost half of its 16 narcotics officers; the team that policed street sales was disbanded. Four community-policing offices, each with four officers, have shrunk to one four-person team covering the entire city.

The traffic division, reduced by more than half, no longer polices streets at night. Officers no longer respond to noninjury auto accidents. City traffic deaths hit a record high in 2015.

Fewer crimes are being solved as well. Officers cleared 14.6 percent of robberies last year, compared with 22 percent in 2012, and 20 percent of aggravated assaults, compared with more than 51 percent in 2012. Cleared vehicle thefts dropped 40 percent.

The average time to respond to a call for help has risen drastically since 2010, by 75 percent for the most serious emergencies and 190 percent over all.

“We had a guy who came in here with a bag, loaded it with what he wanted and walked out the back door,” said Linda Sutherland, who owns the downtown Fun Corner costume shop with her husband, Steve. “We called the police and they said: ‘We can’t arrest him. We don’t have the resources.’”

Nick Gonzalez, who heads the Arrowhead Neighborhood Association in northern San Bernardino, said officers were hardly to blame.

“You have the bad guys moving in and the cops trying to keep them in line, but it’s an impossible task,” he said. “They can’t compete.”

Wicks, at 39 a 12-year veteran, called such judgments too harsh, but he said the sheer volume of calls forced officers to focus on serious crimes at the expense of petty ones.

On summer nights, he said, his onboard computer screen may list 50 and even 75 calls awaiting response by the 30 or so officers on patrol. Although a recent evening patrol was unusually slow, he was working an extra 3 1/2 hours to fill a gap in coverage.

Yet an upswing may be at hand. Burguan, who was promoted in 2013, said he hoped a restructuring would place more officers on the street and improve coordination among divisions. The police officers’ union, which might have been expected to oppose parts of the proposal, instead has embraced it.

Already, the chief has hired civilians at lower cost to replace sworn officers who held desk jobs. His plan envisions rebuilding the force to 320 officers and upgrading ancient office and cruiser computers and the cruiser fleet, half of which is over 10 years old.

The plan awaits a bankruptcy judge’s approval. A major creditor has suggested it might oppose the plan. But hints of a revival already are appearing. The turnover of police officers, which peaked in 2014, dropped more than a third last year. A recent job fair drew a throng of potential applicants. And the department’s performance during the attack in December has lifted morale and, officials hope, its reputation.

“We’ve kind of stabilized,” said Eric McBride, the deputy chief. “We were thrust into the limelight a bit and people said: ‘Hey, those San Bernardino guys were kicked around. But they performed.’”

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