In the city of Salinas, gang violence is a persistent problem that is killing dozens of young people each year. Some city leaders, including the police chief, says the rest of the city suffers, too, from the economic consequence of living in a place where people think you could get shot just for walking down the street. The chief, a council member and other city leaders want to change that, by hiring more police officers to bring down the violence on the streets.
Officer Tim Simpson has been a Salinas police officer for more than a dozen years. And most evenings he patrols East Salinas, hustling from one situation to the next.
“We have a lot of real estate to cover with not very many officers,” Simpson says.
Simpson’s boss, Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin, says the city needs more officers to cut the gun violence and make residents feel safer.
With 22 dead so far, the city is on track to have the worst year for homicides since 2009.
Meanwhile, over the past five years, Salinas has lost nearly one in four of its officers to budget cuts.
McMillin compares the number of officers here with other comparable cities, and says, “Simply put, we’re the lowest.”
Does having fewer police necessarily mean you’ll have more crime? Experts says the answer isn’t always yes. However, the opposite can be true.
“If you do have a significant crime problem and make a significant investment in law enforcement, we know that those crime numbers will start to come down,” McMillin says.
The most noted example of this is New York City, which pioneered the use of broken-windows policing. There, police used beat patrols and attentiveness to petty crimes -- like graffiti and vandalism -- to prevent more serious crimes.
And closer to home, the cities of Richmond and East Palo Alto are examples where adding more police has led to a lower crime rate, according to researchers.
In Salinas, McMillin says the force is stretched thin, and that stops them from doing the kind of work that deters crime.
“The vast majority of Salinas police officers are going from call to call to call,” he says. “They don’t have time to do good quality investigations, certainly don’t have time to do preventative patrols, and do those things that would prevent crime in the first place.”
Preventing crime is one of the pillars of so-called community policing, where officers treat residents more like partners than wards.
UC Berkeley senior law fellow Barry Krisberg puts it this way.
“Changing the relationship of the police to the community -- what’s often called community policing -- in which police position themselves as partners with people in a city,” Krisberg says. “You know they’re no longer the occupying army.”
This kind of policing requires officers to develop relationships to the community they serve. It has its benefits.
“Kids now play in the park, people get out and talk to their neighbors,” Krisberg says. “The more social and community interaction that goes on, the lower the overall crime rate is going to be.”
In Salinas, McMillin says they don’t have enough money to do this kind of policing. They have a bare minimum of two officers assigned to a neighborhood to do the community engagement that seems to help. And he adds that they don’t have the resources to assign even one officer to the city’s schools.
To try to get more money, a group of residents hopes to put a proposal to voters next fall. They’re drafting a measure for a one percent increase in the city’s sales tax to raise money for police, fire and code enforcement.
The measure must still be approved by the city clerk before the signature gathering can begin. And one of the organizers says they’ll likely have to collect roughly 10,000 signatures to get it on the ballot.
If they’re successful, it could fund an additional 100 police officers. And given the current headcount of just under 150, that could give Salinas the biggest police force it has ever had.