Bankrupt Vallejo losing cops amid rising crime |

Bankrupt Vallejo losing cops amid rising crime

VALLEJO — Three months after it became the largest California city to declare bankruptcy, this San Francisco suburb is facing an exodus of police officers as residents grow anxious about a surge in robberies and other crimes.

Vallejo, a scrappy city of 120,000, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in May, blaming its fiscal woes on shrinking tax revenue and escalating costs for police and firefighters.

Now a growing number of officers are helping to reduce the city’s payroll expenses ” by leaving the police department. About 25 of its 150 officers have retired or left for other law enforcement agencies over the past year, and at least 18 more are in the process of applying for jobs elsewhere in Northern California, where cops are in high demand, according to Lt. Richard Nichelman, a department spokesman.

Some officers say they’re worried about their personal finances, burnt out from working overtime and tired of being blamed for the city’s budget problems. Meanwhile, other police departments are eager to hire them.

After five years in Vallejo, Joshua Coleman quit in June to join the Napa Police Department, where he said he’s getting paid more to work in a city with less crime and more stable finances.

“When they decided they were going to go to bankruptcy, I said that’s it. I don’t want to stick around to find out what bankruptcy is like,” said Coleman, 25, who is a new father. “What’s going to happen to my family if I take a pay cut or I get laid off? How long would I be able to make it?”

Vallejo, which faces a $16 million budget shortfall in its current fiscal year, is seeking to renegotiate labor contracts, which city officials say are unaffordable. A federal bankruptcy judge in Sacramento is expected to decide later this month whether the city meets the criteria for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Experts say other American cities and counties could be forced into bankruptcy as the economic downturn wreaks havoc on their budgets. Many municipalities are also saddled with labor contracts they can’t afford and are watching to see if Vallejo can get out of those agreements through bankruptcy.

Alabama’s Jefferson County could be headed for the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Facing a $3.2 billion debt from corruption-ridden sewer project, commissioners decided Thursday to allow residents to vote on a nonbinding referendum in November on whether to file for bankruptcy.

Vallejo traditionally has hired experienced officers from other cities, but many of them are now being aggressively recruited by other Northern California agencies.

Tim Nichols, 35, joined the Vallejo Police Department about three years ago after nine years as an officer in San Francisco. But he left in June to accept a job with the Elk Grove Police Department in the Sacramento area where he lives with his family.

“I definitely wanted to stay … but as the head of a household, I can’t just think about my future, I have to consider my family’s as well,” Nichols said. “I was concerned it was no longer going to be feasible to work there, that I couldn’t stay solvent as a person with a family.”

The department has had to dismantle its narcotics unit, take officers out of schools and reduce the number of street patrols. Police now focus on violent crimes, but have less time to investigate burglaries, identity theft, vandalism and other “quality of life issues,” Nichelman said.

Meanwhile, robberies over the past six months have been up by about 20 percent from last year, though homicides remain about the same, he said. Police are worried that would-be criminals know there are less officers in Vallejo, making it a more attractive target.

“We can only spread ourselves so thin,” said Nichelman. “We just don’t have the resources. The bad guys are smart enough to know it makes it far more fertile ground for them.”

Councilwoman Stephanie Gomes accused the police officers union of “trying to create chaos in the community to frighten people,” noting that crime is up in other Bay Area cities, in part because people become more desperate when the economy slows.

Gomes, a member of the council that voted unanimously for bankruptcy, said the city would be able to offer competitive pay to police officers once it restructures its finances.

“Right now our pay and benefits are too high, and we simply can’t afford them,” she said. “The Vallejo Police Department will be able to offer very good benefits and salary in the future. Will it be at the Lexus level? No, but it will still be very competitive.”

Some residents say they’re increasingly worried about their safety with fewer cops to respond to emergencies and patrol the streets.

Elisabeth Smith, 49, who has lived in Vallejo her whole life, said her barber shop was broken into three times this past spring, suffering about $3,000 in losses from damage and stolen cash.

Smith, who previously had little problem with crime during 22 years running the business, said she was disappointed that the officer who responded to the third break-in in April did little more than write up a police report.

“They didn’t do anything for me ” nothing, not even a follow-up. If this would have happened in the past, they would have done all that,” Smith said. “People don’t call the police anymore unless it has to do with violence or somebody’s injured because there’s nothing they can do.”

Gaggan and Kiran Sooch, who own a gas station in Vallejo, said their house was burglarized late last year, and they know several other families whose homes have been robbed recently. As far as they know, no one has been arrested for the break-ins.

They’ve also noticed it takes longer for police to respond to calls. They said it took 45 minutes for an officer to arrive last month when they called for help with panhandlers who had harassed customers and laughed at their threats to call police.

“They were very confident they could get away with it,” Gaggan Sooch, 36, said. “If more officers leave, more people are going to get encouraged to do more of these kinds of things.”

Councilwoman Joanne Schivley said she’s concerned about officers leaving Vallejo, but still believes the city had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

“You can’t call people into work if you can’t pay them,” she said. “We were about to run out of money.”

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