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Defund the Santa Rosa Police Department? Not likely.

Open Trench by Bob Andrews
The average pay for a police officer (not including overtime) went from $58,100 in 1996 to $110,200 in 2009

Open Trench by Bob Andrews

On June 7, the Minneapolis city council of Minneapolis voted to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. At a rally, nine members of the council pledged to dismantle the police department, on the theory that years (or decades) of efforts to reform racial attitudes had failed to produce tangible results. Council members admit they don’t quite know what the replacement model for policing will look like.

Later, on June 16, the city council of Los Angeles voted to study ways to slash the police department budget by up to $150 million, instead allocating those funds to social services such as mental health, housing, and public health. The pending police department budget for the next fiscal year is $1.86 billion.

The call to defund police departments has spread to many other cities, and some people point to Camden, New Jersey, as an example of a city that has already gone through the extreme defunding process. In 2013, state officials disbanded the Camden police department. More than 300 police officers lost their jobs, and only about half re-enlisted in the new department dedicated to holistic, do-no-harm policies rather than a militaristic approach. The change-over process was described as “cataclysmic” by reporter Maryclaire Dale, who works for the Associated Press.

Despite what’s happening in other areas, defunding of the Santa Rosa Police Department is unlikely. Here are some reasons.

First, and most important, the police union in Santa Rosa is very powerful. Support by the union is virtually mandatory for a candidate to be elected to the city council. Two current members of the council are high-ranking retirees from the police department.

Is the power of the police union effective? You bet. Looking back at a column I wrote in August 2011, I noted that from 1996 to 2009 the population of Santa Rosa increased by about 30 percent. But in the same period police department total wages increased 119 percent. The average pay for a police officer (not including overtime) went from $58,100 in 1996 to $110,200 in 2009. Average pay has since increased every year since 2009.

Why are the pay raises for police so large? The answer is Measure A, a 1996 binding arbitration ballot measure pushed hard by police and firefighter unions. Measure A passed by a margin of 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent. On the portion of the ballot where voters marked “Yes” or “No,” the only reference was to binding arbitration to settle disputes about wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment between Santa Rosa and its police and firefighters. But buried in the fine print (adding up to nearly 1,300 words) of the full Measure was language noting that the arbitrators must consider wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment of employees in a group of Bay Area cities of similar population. I call this the “mandatory-comparable-pay-and-benefits provision.”

City officials with whom I have spoken confirmed that the practical effect of Measure A was to take away the bargaining power of the City of Santa Rosa. Cities routinely lose cases that are decided by arbitrators, and arbitration is an expensive process. Two leading opponents of Measure A were Chief of Police Sal Rosano and Fire Chief Tony Pini, who knew that the combination of binding arbitration and mandatory comparable pay and benefits would cost the City millions of dollars.

How powerful is binding arbitration? On June 21, CBS broadcast an interview with the Minneapolis Chief of Police, Medaria Arradondo, who is a Black American. He was asked what happened to various police officers he’d fired over the years, including officers accused of racism. He admitted that half of the fired officers had to be reinstated as a result of arbitration. The same could happen with officers he most recently fired. And arbitration could also stand in the way of defunding the Minneapolis Police Department.

The defund-the-police movement must deal with contracts, such as the “Memorandum of Understanding” between Santa Rosa and the police union representing officers. The memorandum in Santa Rosa runs 50 pages and, yes, includes a comprehensive section on arbitration. And there is also the issue of pension funding, which seems to only go higher, never lower or away. Salaries and pension contributions are up 19 percent over four recent budget years, account for 84 percent of the total police department budget of $67.3 million, plus $16.4 million of Pension Obligation Bonds.

In summary, there are obstacles to defunding the police. I asked a retired police officer for his thoughts on the issue. His pithy response:

“As all things political, it will be a dog and pony show. Funds will be directed to Community Relations and Outreach programs. But in reality, the programs will do what Patrol is doing now. It will end with little actual loss of funds to units, but change of unit names. If you want real change spend it on training. The biggest problem is Santa Rosa is becoming a city, not a farm town. Crime comes with growth.”


A native of Santa Rosa, Bob Andrews is a former pension trust officer at Exchange Bank, and was a long-time co-owner of a retirement plan administration firm. He’s married with two children and three grandchildren, and loves everything to do with wine. Contact him at bandrews@northbaybiz.com.

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