After a decade of cutting back its police force, the Millbrae Police Department can no longer do its job properly.
City officials say the 29-member department — down from 38 members 10 years ago — lacks the staff to provide timely services, thoroughly follow up on unsolved cases and properly oversee officers. And since officers sometimes work 16-hour shifts, they are more prone to mistakes and injury, and expose the department to liability.
The cash-strapped city is looking at two solutions to the problem.
One would be hiring enough people to do the job right, something city officials estimate would cost an additional $410,000 a year. The other would be contracting with the sheriff for police work, the cost of which has yet to be determined.
Councilwoman Gina Papan said that after years of relying on temporary, part-time or retired police chiefs, the most essential part of the rehiring solution would be to hire a chief who would provide long-term vision and leadership.
“We’ve been using Band-Aids for a long time,” Papan said.
The city would need to bring on a new police commander and increase four half-time positions to full-time positions — including that of current interim Chief Neil Telford, who works half-time as San Bruno’s police chief.
Next week, officials will meet with the Sheriff’s Office to discuss outsourcing police services, spokesman Ray Lunny said.
But consolidation would be a bitter pill for Millbrae, which recently agreed to merge its Fire Department with those of Hillsborough, Burlingame and San Bruno. Officials also invested two years into planning a merger with San Bruno’s police until a report commissioned by the city deemed that option financially untenable, Papan said.
Even as the size of Millbrae’s force has remained flat, the costs associated with fielding it have grown. Total personnel costs were $4 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year and $4.1 million in 2009-10, but surged to $4.8 million last year. Throughout this period, the total number of employees only varied by one half-timer.
President Robert Raw of the Millbrae Police Officers Association said his union has “no opinion” on which solution the council chooses, so long as they hire a full-time chief.
“We’re like a ship without a rudder,” Raw said. In the case of a county contract, Raw said full-time officers would retain their jobs. The fate of part-time and civilian employees is unknown, he added, noting that most civilians were retained when the sheriff took over policing for San Carlos and Half Moon Bay.
Raw said the department has been an “experiment” in cost savings for the City Council. While staff cuts seemed to work for a while, he said council members became “comfortable” with a downsized or half-time staff until Telford recently began demanding change. He said the council’s main focus now is on avoiding layoffs.