The City of Sunnyvale just posted photos and a story about our new Community Service Officers, and it’s worth checking out, to better understand how we’re working to improve public safety in Sunnyvale. This is all reaching the end of a long process to better balance our Public Safety workforce and maximize the hours and effectiveness of our Public Safety Officers (PSOs), and it’s terrific to see it finally coming to fruition.
During the Great Depression, we took a long, hard look at every department – not just how we’re staffing them, but what the employees actually do with their time. This was all part of an effort to get the most effective use of your tax dollars, eliminate waste, and maximize the effectiveness of Sunnyvale’s services, all in a time when we had no extra money to spend and were working to avoid the deep service cuts that so many other cities had. When we examined Public Safety, we found two aspects that could be improved. First, we had a handful of administrative positions that were being served by full PSOs but which don’t actually require full fire and police training. This indicates that we were over-staffing those positions and paying too much to get the jobs done. Second, we found that in a typical patrol shift, our PSOs spend a whole lot of time on non-violent, non-emergency issues that could be handled by someone with much less training – and that this time was distracting our PSOs from the more important job of patrolling our streets and responding quickly to emergency situations.
So the City Manager and Public Safety Chief initiated a program to improve efficiency through four steps:
- Move five PSOs who were performing administrative tasks back into the field when retirements created vacancies.
- Fill the vacated administrative slots with civilians trained for those jobs.
- Create a Community Service Officer program, with CSOs having a lower level of professional training than PSOs
- Deploy CSOs to the streets to off-load a lot of the non-emergency calls from our PSOs, so they can focus on more important things
Here’s an example of one of the administrative positions that was affected. We had a position for a HazMat Inspector – someone who works with (primarily) industrial locations to ensure the facility’s handling of hazardous materials is safe and poses no danger to the community. Such a position clearly requires firefighting training, but it doesn’t require police skills. Using a fully-trained PSO is something of a waste, as compared to using a firefighting-trained civilian. So we moved that PSO to other duties when another PSO retired, then hired a civilian at a lower cost as our new HazMat Inspector.
We’re now seeing the end result of that process, and you should start seeing the CSOs in the streets responding to calls, in their newly-acquired city vehicles:
(these are actually former rental vehicles that we obtained at a really good price).
This is clearly a huge win for the city. We increased the effectiveness of our patrols, we increased our Department of Public Safety headcount, and we’ve made Sunnyvale a little bit safer, at no extra cost. Unfortunately, over the next couple of months, you’re probably going to hear a bunch of bogus claims related to this effort, from people who either don’t understand what happened and why, or who simply don’t care what Sunnyvale actually did. I’m already hearing some of the nonsense. For instance:
- “Sunnyvale reduced the number of officers” – well, true, we eliminated five PSOs from administration through retirements. But the implication that we took five officers off the street or out of the firehouses is not true. And the implication that we reduced headcount is false – we have fewer PSOs but more overall Department of Public Safety employees. We’re simply using civilians in place of PSOs in some administrative positions. This one gets me, because it’s so blatantly dishonest when you understand what was done and why.
- “The city has made the streets less safe” – really false and unfair. We actually found a very smart way to make the streets even more safe, without spending any extra money (which we didn’t have anyway, thanks to the Great Recession).
- “The Public Safety headcount is declining” – well, not over the past four years it’s not, not when you actually look at the full Department of Public Safety staffing.
And of course, that’s just the first step. Next step is to start increasing staffing, specifically our PSOs. Improving efficiency is great, and our six new CSOs get us a lot of bang for the buck, but nothing beats putting more PSOs on the street. And we’re doing that already. We hired two PSOs this year, plus the new Senior Crime Analyst. I believe we’re going to add two more new PSOs in next year’s budget (still TBD). And if you choose to pass the hotel tax increase this year, we’ll get some extra PSOs out of that as well. Not bad for our first year out of the Great Recession.
There are a lot of kudos to go around for this plan. It starts with the City Manager and the Chief of Public Safety, who looked out of the box and found a pretty innovative way to improve services at no cost. Credit also has to go to the Public Safety Officers Association, which was faced with a short-term loss of five sworn officers (which wasn’t pleasant, administrative or not). There’s obviously some unhappiness with this, and it’s not over yet. There are still concerns about how we’re staffing and whether or not we’re providing the safest environment for our Public Safety Officers, and we need to work through all of that and make sure we’re protecting our guys. But PSOA deliberately refrained from going to war with the city over this, and I’m grateful to them for that. Hopefully this will all work out with the increased staffing that will happen over the next few years. And, of course, we had a City Council that was smart enough to listen to everyone and support the plan. I’ll take a little bit of credit for that one…