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The Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station, located on Gerald Ford Drive, is the home of the Coachella Valley’s most robust local policing force.

The station covers all unincorporated areas of the western valley, as well as the cities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, each of which contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to provide police services.

Officials in one of those cities, Palm Desert, are expressing concerns about rising public safety costs. Palm Desert Mayor Bob Spiegel recently told the Independent that for the first time, public-safety costs now make up more than half of the city’s budget.

After hearing that, we decided it was time to talk to the commander of the Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station regarding the local state of crime, public-safety issues and law-enforcement needs.

Unfortunately, our media requests were either ignored or shoved off to the cities with whom the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department contracts. Deputy Armando Munoz, the local public information officer, repeatedly dodged questions. He wouldn’t even tell us how many deputies are employed at the Palm Desert Station.

Up until about two months ago, the things were different. The station’s commander was Capt. Susan “Sue” Trevino, the first woman to ever hold that post. Capt. Trevino, who recently retired, was a remarkable leader who understood the need for media access and public information.

On Aug. 10, Capt. David Teets took over as the station’s new commander. After two weeks of emailing media requests for a short, 10-20 minute interview with Teets, Munoz stated that “the captain is unavailable” to talk.

Therefore, I simply showed up at the Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station—and Lt. John Shields, a law-enforcement veteran of 27 years, gave me an interview on the spot. He started by answering that employment question: He said the station has roughly 200 people on staff.

Lt. Shields oversees Rancho Mirage as its assistant chief of police. He talked about the city’s low crime rate, and the fact that there has not been a homicide in Rancho Mirage in recent years.

“With Rancho Mirage, our concern is property crimes,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem, and it’s not that big in comparison to other areas,” he said.

Rancho Mirage, with a population a bit below 18,000, has a sheriff’s substation. Eleven deputies are on patrol daily—two motorcycle officers included—along with three community service officers.

Lt. Shields said Rancho Mirage has no plans to reduce its policing force.

“We meet with the city manager and the city staff weekly, and we have not recommended it,” he said.

Due to the recent San Bernardino and New York terrorism acts, the question of adequate public safety is on the minds of many.

“For the size of the city, we have quite a few officers out there, so we have a very good presence there,” Lt. Shields said. “We also have lots of city staff personnel who went through the active-shooter training program, and they know if they see something, to say something.”

President Gerald Ford used to live in Rancho Mirage, and rumor has it that President Barack Obama is considering purchasing a home there.

“When and if they come, he will no longer be a sitting president, so the footprint and the threat is much smaller,” Shields said. “As far as the resources go, the Secret Service will take care of that, but we’re ready.”

As for Indian Wells, my questions were promptly answered via email by Nancy Samuelson, the city’s spokesperson. According to her, Indian Wells has one officer dedicated 24/7, as well as one motor officer, one special enforcement officer, one special event officer, five community service officers and one lieutenant overseeing its staff.

There is a small sheriff’s substation across from Indian Wells City Hall, and the city’s crime rate is minimal.

“Main public safety (concerns involve) traffic enforcements, collisions and petty property crime,” Samuelson stated. “Any need for more deputies is analyzed by response time, number of calls and crime volume.”

Samuelson said that Indian Wells’ population is 4,974, and that the city’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department costs $3.5 million annually—which represents 24.78 percent of the city’s budget.

Unlike Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, the city of Palm Desert is facing some challenges when it comes to the rising cost of public safety.

According to David Hermann, the city of Palm Desert’s spokesman, the city’s general-fund budget is $53,267,218 for the fiscal year; of that, $21,141,245 is slated for police services.

In order to save some money, the city froze two motorcycle-cops positions. Hermann said the savings from two positions is $611,034.88.

There is also a possibility to save more money: The city froze a special enforcement officer position, too, but these funds were set aside in case one of the frozen positions needs to be reinstated; the potential additional savings is $308,116.24. 

“The city’s police department currently has 78 sworn deputies, taking into account two frozen officer positions and one officer assigned to the special enforcement team,” Hermann said. “The department also has 11 non-sworn positions, including nine community service officers, a crime analyst and a forensic technician.”

Palm Desert, with a population just shy of 50,000, could save more than $900,000 from these public-safety budget cuts. Could this substantially affect safety and crime in Palm Desert?

That’s a question I wanted to ask Capt. Teets. Alas, he was “unavailable.”

Published in Local Issues

We’re living in a video world. Cameras are everywhere: on streets, tablets, smart phones and satellites.

Cameras can also help protect the public and law enforcement alike when placed in key public areas and—increasingly—on police officers themselves.

However, you won’t find very many law-enforcement cameras in the Coachella Valley. For instance, Palm Springs Police Department officers do not wear body cams, nor do their police vehicles have dashboard cams. The same goes for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which enforces law and order in Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and elsewhere.

An early February request to talk about cameras with Alberto Franz, the Palm Springs chief of police, was answered by an assistant who stated that the chief was busy until the end of month. On the contrary, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman was happy to talk, both one-on-one and via email.

“I am a huge proponent and completely support the use of body-worn cameras on our police officers,” Zimmerman said. “We have 600 officers wearing cameras. By the year’s end, all of our officers working in a uniform patrol assignment (about 1,000) will be wearing them. Having officers wearing body-worn cameras is a win-win for both the officer and the community.”

Meanwhile, here in Riverside County, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the union that represents deputies, is going to court in an attempt to stop the county from issuing body cams to on-duty deputies. Deputy Armando Munoz, the public information officer at the sheriff’s Palm Desert station, stated that “nobody … will talk about the body cameras at this point since the whole issue is still in court proceedings.”

While Chief Franz declined to talk about possible body cameras, Sgt. Harvey Reed, the Palm Springs Police Department spokesperson, did talk. He said management has started looking at different makes and models of cameras. Of particular interest is a clip-on camera that attaches to an officer’s shirt below the collar. It shows the area directly in front of the officer, as well as slightly to the left and right, and records in color with sound.

“When policies and procedures are developed, privacy expectations will be taken into consideration,” he said.

Certainly, when it comes to cameras, privacy issues are important. In fact, former police dispatcher Laura Crawford, now enjoying retirement in Rancho Mirage, remembers when officers’ unions even didn’t want global-positioning systems activated in police cruisers.

“It was vital to me as a dispatcher to know where an officer was if all hell broke loose,” Crawford said. “Body cameras have the same issues, as officers feel everything they do is under scrutiny.”

San Diego’s Chief Zimmerman, however, believes the positives of body cameras far outweigh negatives.

“A body worn-camera can be a very valuable training tool for the officer,” Zimmerman said. “Currently, at my department, we are hiring many police officers, and having the ability to see the video will only enhance the training of our officers.”

Surveillance cameras and traffic cameras can also be useful in combating crimes. Yet desert cities are lagging behind when it comes to adopting this technology as well.

David Hermann, the public information officer at the city of Palm Desert, confirmed there are no monitored traffic cameras on public streets in Palm Desert.

Mark Greenwood, Palm Desert’s director of public works, said the city does have a few traffic signals equipped with cameras that allow the signal to change more quickly based on the presence of vehicles. However, these low-resolution cameras do not record, and are not monitored. Palm Desert also has five portable, motion-detecting cameras that are meant to discourage vandalism and graffiti; they take still photos when they detect motion. However, when I spoke to Hermann in February, he said none of the cameras were deployed.

Palm Springs police dispatchers have the ability to monitor 11 cameras, mostly in the downtown area. The video from these cameras, according to Sgt. Reed, is recorded and retained for a period of one year. Palm Springs has 80 intersections with signals.

In the near future, Palm Springs will proceed with the construction of a new Traffic Management Center and Citywide Traffic Signal Interconnect Project. According to Marcus Fuller, an assistant city manager and city engineer, the federally funded, $2 million-plus project will include numerous new traffic cameras, although it has not yet been determined if and how data will be stored.

Stay tuned.

Published in Local Issues

We’re getting older. We’re getting more Hispanic. And we’re getting a heck of a lot bigger.

Those are the conclusions that can be drawn from a series recently released Coachella Valley growth projections. The state of California earlier this year released statewide figures broken down by county, and the folks at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) were kind enough to release brand-new Coachella Valley-specific projections to the Independent.

The numbers are striking: SCAG projects that while there were 443,000 people in what the association classifies as the Coachella Valley in 2008, there will be 604,000 of us in 2020—just seven short years away. And in 2035, there will be 884,000 of us.

“When you think of our growth over the years, it’s been slow and steady,” said Cathedral City Councilmember Greg Pettis, who also sits on the boards of SCAG and the Riverside County Transportation Commission. “This is an explosion.”

That explosion will largely take place in the East Valley. While the population of every city in the valley is projected to grow by at least 20 percent, Indio is expected to grow from 73,300 people in 2008 to 111,800 in 2035—a 53 percent expansion.

However, the projected growth in Coachella makes Indio’s growth look quaint: The city of 38,200 people in 2008 is expected to balloon to 70,200 in 2020, and 128,700 in 2035, making it the valley’s largest city. (For what it’s worth, the city of Coachella is updating its general plan, and documents show that city officials there are projecting 155,000 people by 2035.)

But the biggest growth won’t happen in any city at all. The unincorporated areas of the valley are expected to see half of all the population growth between 2008 and 2035: While 87,500 people lived in the Coachella Valley’s unincorporated areas in 2008, a whopping 308,600 people will be in those areas in 2035. A SCAG map shows that much of this expansion in unincorporated areas will take place north of Interstate 10 and in the areas south and west of Coachella.

The projections from SCAG and the state show that as we grow, the Coachella Valley’s percentage of Latinos will rise, while the percentage of “non-Hispanic whites” will fall.

Meanwhile, we’ll get older, too. State figures show that Riverside County will be leading California in terms of growth rate. Expanding the timeframe out a bit, these state figures show that between 2010 and 2060, Riverside County’s population will expand by 92 percent (with the Coachella Valley growing at a higher rate than the rest of the county). However, seniors will see the highest percentage of growth: The number of people age 65 to 74 in Riverside County is expected to grow by 210 percent; the number of people between 75 and 84 by 255 percent; and people 85 and older by a whopping 531 percent.

While projections definitely can be wrong—the Great Recession, for example, blew holes in some earlier projections—it’s clear that our little valley will go through a whole lot of change over the next generation.

Reasons for Optimism

The good news is that local leaders said they’re working to prepare for this “explosion,” and in some ways, we’re ahead of the curve.

For example, when it comes to area’s roadways, we’re doing OK.

“So far, we’ve been able to keep up with growth and traffic,” said Tom Kirk, the executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments. “This time of year, some of our roadways are taxed, because we have so many visitors, but our roads are still far less congested than in Los Angeles and other urban areas. We’ve done a good job of keeping up with that.”

He pointed to the fact that Riverside County voters approved—and renewed—a half-cent sales tax measure that funds transportation projects as one reason the valley’s roadways remain relatively viable, and said that impact fees on new developments have—and will continue to—provide funding for new roads.

Pettis noted that Interstate 10 has seen a steady series of interchange improvements, and that there’s a possibility of more new or expanded interchanges, including ones at Da Vall Drive, Landau Boulevard and Jefferson Street.

Kirk also brought up moves that area governments are making to go beyond vehicle-based transportation. Specifically, he mentioned the proposed Whitewater River Parkway, a bike/pedestrian/“neighborhood electric vehicle” pathway—46 miles, at an estimated $70 million cost—that would connect all of the valley’s cities.

“It’s a big part of our plan to move people from point A to point B,” Kirk said.

Kirk also said he feels that the valley is well-prepared to handle the increase in water needs that will come with a large increase in population, noting that the Coachella Valley Water District and other area agencies have long-term commitments to secure the water supply.

“Also, we tend to use less water in newer developments than older developments,” Kirk said.

The recent Coachella Valley Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, prepared by the Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group, examines many of the water issues facing the valley, and comes up with a comprehensive plan for our water supply. The plan does ring some warning bells, though, including the fact that our local aquifers are decreasing due to over-pumping, and that projected Colorado River water may not be available due to drought and climate change.

Speaking of comprehensive planning, the city of Coachella is putting the finishing touches on its general plan update. Luis Lopez, the city’s community development director, said the plan is the blueprint for the city’s much-larger future.

I asked him: Is the city of Coachella ready to become the valley’s largest?

“As a small-city government, we need to grow and mature and sophisticate into a large city,” Lopez said.

Lopez added that the city is working hard on transportation matters, to make sure future residents will be able to get around the area. He said city planners are putting an emphasis on making streets more pedestrian-friendly, and improving access to public transit.

Officials are also preparing for new developments, such as La Entrada, a 7,800-home project located south of Interstate 10 and east of Highway 86.

“It’s basically like a new town up there,” he said. “We need to create connectivity with the project.”

Causes for Concern

Of course, with growth comes change. Lopez conceded that as more and more agricultural land is gobbled up by homes and development, his small, agricultural town will cease to be so small and agricultural.

“Currently, we’re more rural, with more open space. As those areas become urbanized, there will be a significant change in character,” Lopez said.

Of course, character is just one of many potential worrisome changes. For one thing, less agricultural land means less agricultural business.

And speaking of business: If the size of the valley doubles, where will all these newcomers work?

Pettis cited employment as a potential problem. He said that if plans and proposals to expand College of the Desert (presuming the college can ever get beyond a recent series of scandals and misdeeds) and the Palm Desert campus of the California State University at San Bernardino could come to fruition, that would be a great start. He also said community leaders need to look at expanding the health-care industry (especially considering the increase in the senior population) and getting “some kind of manufacturing” into the desert.

“It needs to be a focus,” he said.

Speaking of a focus, everyone the Independent spoke to agrees that the valley needs to keep the money train that is tourism on track. Pettis is especially hopeful about a proposed (and long-delayed) resort hotel in downtown Cathedral City that he said could bring 500 to 600 jobs.

However, the valley may not need as many jobs, per se, if there were greater rail connectivity to the rest of Southern California. Housing is cheaper in the Coachella Valley than it is in much of Los Angeles and Orange counties, so more people who have jobs in those metropolitan areas could decide to make the commute if the commute were cheaper and easier than it is now.

Both Pettis and Kirk talked up the importance of twice-a-day, seven-day-a-week rail service to Riverside, Orange County and Los Angeles; currently, Amtrak offers only three days of service between Palm Springs and Los Angeles—and the train arrives in North Palm Springs at the ungodly time of 12:36 a.m.

“We have a lot of people traveling (from the Coachella Valley) to Riverside or Moreno Valley every day,” Pettis said. “Well, they’re stuck on the freeways now.”

Finally, Kirk said that the concern that figuratively keeps him up at night is a problem that neither he nor other local leaders can control.

“I do believe for those of us who live in and love the state of California, there’s much that worries me. There are systematic, big picture concerns” when it comes to state government, especially when it comes to funding education and infrastructure, he said.

The Great Unknowns

One of the more interesting aspects of the projected growth involves the fact that so much of it is expected to happen in unincorporated areas. As mentioned above, as of 2008, 87,500 people—or not quite 20 percent of the 443,000 people that lived within the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ jurisdiction (which, for some reason, includes the Blythe area)—lived outside of an incorporated area.

In 2035, that number is projected to be 308,600, or 35 percent of the total population of 884,000.

In the past, when a large number of people moved into an unincorporated area, the residents would often band together to incorporate and create a new town or city, or an adjacent city would annex the area. However, “the game is different today,” Kirk said, considering that governments at all levels—and especially at the state and county levels—are navigating through financial problems.

“I think it’d be a struggle for a new city to be formed, and a very big challenge for older cities to expand,” Kirk said. “That means the challenge is going to fall upon the county’s shoulders to service these populations.”

That’s not to say that the area’s cities don’t have expansion plans—for example, Coachella is planning some annexation of land involving the La Entrada development, Lopez said, and Pettis noted that Cathedral City has designs on the Thousand Palms area. Still, it’s safe to say that many of the largest-growing areas in the valley will wind up unincorporated.

The biggest concern that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has about this extra burden is finding qualified law-enforcement officials to handle it all—especially if growth comes quickly.

“Deputy sheriffs and correctional deputies are required to meet strict requirements to ensure they can handle the demands of a career in law enforcement. The hiring process for a new deputy sheriff can take between eight and 12 months, with another year of training. The skill level and experience takes even longer to achieve, so you need to consider the lead time necessary to reach the intended goal,” wrote Riverside County Chief Deputy Rodney Vigue, in response to an emailed list of questions from the Independent.

These requirements, when combined with the projected growth explosion, have Vigue concerned.

“Less than 1 percent of the candidates who apply for a deputy sheriff position are hired, and all the agencies in the Coachella Valley and throughout the state are competing against each other for the same candidates,” Vigue wrote.

Vigue, like Kirk, expressed concerns about the state’s financial picture.

“The unforeseen impacts the state may have on existing funding sources and any future cuts have the potential to force local communities to evaluate budget priorities,” Vigue wrote. “For example, the recent influx of state prisoners into the county correctional facilities and into our communities, as a result of the state corrections realignment, has strained local obligations. This impact is not only being felt from a county perspective, jail-overcrowding and a rise in crime, but also from each city that is trying to make the community safer. The shift from state responsibility to the county has strained an already overburdened correctional system, which will take years of planning and funding to overcome.”

So, in other words, as the Coachella Valley gets older, more Hispanic and a heck of a lot bigger, don’t expect everything to be smooth sailing.

“The department will need to look toward innovative programs, technology and volunteers to assist with controlling crime and maintaining the quality of life we currently enjoy in the Coachella Valley,” Vigue wrote.

Published in Local Issues