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Audit Report Finds High Santa Monica Police Cost, Low Clearance Rate

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 23, 2018 -- A new audit of City finances by an outside firm is posing again a longtime question: Is Santa Monica getting its money's worth for the high price of policing?

Although the Santa Monica Police Department had the largest operating budget among comparison cities, it had the lowest clearance rate for crimes, according to a draft report by Moss Adams, which was hired by the City to audit municipal services.

Santa Monica's police operating cost of $86,621,194 in the 2016-17 fiscal year was higher than the average of $60 million, with $932 spent per resident, compared with $554 on average for the peer cities, according to the audit.

During the same period, SMPD cleared 54 percent of its cases involving violent crime, compared to an average of 61 percent for comparison cities, and 9 percent for property crimes, compared to 23 percent.

Santa Monica police officials question the audit's numbers, which they note are preliminary, and dispute at least one key finding involving response times ("Santa Monica Police Twice as Slow to Arrive than Comparable Southland Cities, Audit Finds," January 23, 2018).

They also note that Santa Monica's population more than doubles during the day and that the beach city's popularity as a tourist destination, large and rising homeless ranks and increasingly congested streets pose special challenges.

“We try to deliver as much as we can. But we have a draw you don’t see in, say, Culver City," said Lt. Saul Rodriguez, the police department spokesman.

“We have a dynamic city that presents challenges," he said. "We are trying to think ahead. But a lot we can’t control.”

According to the audit, the SMPD had the most full-time equivalent (FTE)positions, 436, compared to the average in peer cities of 284. Among comparison cities, the highest number of such positions was 370.

Operating cost per FTE for Santa Monica police was lower than that of its counterparts, with the City’s cost per FTE of $198,809 below the average of $211,675 for comparison cities, according to the audit.

Moss Adams’ analysis covers spending and some measure of performance for every City department. It compares Santa Monica to 11 other Southern California cities considered peers ("Outside Audit Finds Santa Monica Far Outspent Peer Cities for Services," January 8, 2018).

The audit was unveiled in draft form in November to the City’s Audit Subcommittee and to the ad hoc citizen’s panel formed to assist in shaping the scope and other particulars of Moss Adams’ analysis. The final version was expected this month.

In looking at the SMPD, the auditors used surveys submitted from the cities of Burbank, Culver City, Glendale, Pasadena and Santa Barbara.

Auditors found Santa Monica police were far busier than their counterparts in peer cities when it came to service calls, but also lagged behind its peer counterparts in important measures of performance.

For 2016-2017, the department reported 118,957 service calls, compared to the average among peers of 70,250 calls.

SMPD cleared 54 percent of its cases involving violent crime –- the lowest rate of the cities analyzed by auditors. The average clearance rate among peer cities was 61 percent.

Aside from Santa Monica, the lowest clearance rate was 56 percent, the highest rate 66 percent.

Much worse was the clearance rate for property crime.

Auditors found 3,249 residents per 100,000 were victims of property crimes, almost a third higher than the average among peer cities of 2,504 per 100,000 residents.

For property crimes, SMPD’s clearance rate was 9 percent, compared to the average of 23 percent among peer cities.

Rodriguez said comparisons to other police forces fail to take into consideration the myriad of tasks, some new, Santa Monica police now perform.

The audit itself noted that Santa Monica swells to a quarter of a million people -- workers, visitors and residents -- on any given week day, which presents a much more complex mission for police than it might seem at first for a small city of just 8.4 square miles and some 94,000 residents.

The department also operates a jail and is responsible for animal control, downtown information services, community services, a homeless liaison program and traffic enforcement.

Rodriguez noted the dynamics of everyday life in Santa Monica are rapidly changing, which poses challenges for police.

Expo light rail, which debuted in Santa Monica in May of 2016, is bringing a large outside population that couldn’t reach, and depart, the seashore so easily in the past.

Also consuming police resources is the City’s Vision Zero policy, which is meant to make it safer for bicyclists and pedestrians jockeying with vehicles on Santa Monica's congested streets.

In addition, the city's homeless population, which increased 26 percent last year, also requires more police time.

A sample of daily calls for service shows the city’s homeless routinely account for about 30 percent of the total, Rodriguez said.

For instance, this Sunday’s log included 334 calls for service, of which 90 involved homeless people, or 27 percent, he said.

“It’s generally a significant number,” Rodriguez said.

“For many people, the perception of crime is bigger than the amount of crime itself,” Rodriquez said.

It becomes hard, for both the public and police, to watch suspects arrested for lesser crimes jailed, and then released the next day and “back in the streets,” he said.

“In and out. In and out,” Rodriguez said. "I can understand the levels of frustration” in the community.


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