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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

The city of Palm Desert is rising up against the state’s tax takeaways by asking its residents to raise a fee on visitors—and this is all unfolding in the shadow of a well-publicized scandal involving the former city manager.

According to city officials, the state of California has taken about $40 million away from the state every year in redevelopment funds. So on July 28, City Council members unanimously voted to place a measure on the November ballot that would increase the local transient occupancy tax (in other words, the hotel tax) from 9 percent to 11 percent, to replace a small fraction of the $40 million the state takes every year. That 11 percent would be on par with what other valley cities charge.

They nicknamed it Measure T. That may sound somewhat familiar to Palm Springs residents, who in 2011 passed something called Measure J. However, the similarities in the ballot initiatives end there: Palm Springs’ Measure J increased the sales tax by 1 percent, while Measure T will affect only people staying at the city’s hotels and motels.

Some of that Measure J money was used for downtown redevelopment in Palm Springs, and was at the center of the high-profile FBI raid at the City Hall which also apparently targeted then-Mayor Steve Pougnet.

Palm Desert Mayor Bob Spiegel was adamant that his city would not end up having any such problems if residents pass Measure T.

“I don’t think it is appropriate or relevant to talk about challenges facing other cities,” Spiegel said. “Palm Desert has earned a well-established reputation for fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of public resources.”

Spiegel said certain steps would be taken by the city to prevent any possible misuse of the funds generated by the proposed Measure T.

“Measure T is subject to strong accountability provisions, including independent audits, public oversight and local control of funds that cannot be taken by state,” Spiegel said.

While Spiegel claimed Palm Desert has a “well-established reputation for fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of public resources,” it is worth noting that the Palm Desert City Council earlier this year gave former City Manager John Wohlmuth a severance package valued at nearly $300,000 after he allegedly showed a nude photo of a co-worker to his colleagues at City Hall.

City officials claimed they approved the severance package to avoid being sued by Wohlmuth.

Anyway, back to Measure T: Spiegel said the Measure T funds would help the city deal with rising public-safety costs.

“For the first time in Palm Desert’s history, public-safety costs have exceeded 50 percent of our annual budget,” he said. “Measure T will provide a dedicated local source of funding.”

Palm Desert contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for law-enforcement services.

“We work closely with the (sheriff’s department) to address the community’s needs,” said Justin McCarthy, Palm Desert’s interim city manager. “If, in consultation with them, additional deputies are required, we would recommend adding them.”

McCarthy, who is being paid $119 per hour as the interim city manager, said Measure T would generate approximately $2.2 million annually.

Palm Desert is home to 12 hotels with 2,171 rooms. There are also numerous timeshare properties that will be affected by Measure T, depending on their vacancy.

“The city has three vacation ownership (timeshare) properties that function like hotels: Marriott Shadow Ridge (1,093 rooms), Westin Desert Willow Villas (268 rooms) and Embarc Palm Desert—Intrawest Resort (88 rooms),” said Palm Desert spokesman David Hermann.

According to Hermann, the three timeshare properties function as hotels when the units are not booked by owners.

“The resorts advertise the rooms on online travel sites, etc.,” he said. “And when guests pay their bill, the resort collects the transient occupancy tax along with the charge for their lodging.”

Measure T would obviously bring in even more revenue with additional hotel development—and city officials say two new hotels are under construction.

“Hotel Paseo is a boutique hotel being built next to The Gardens on El Paseo,” Hermann said. “It will have 150 rooms. The brand is the Marriott Autograph Collection, and the hotel is expected to open in September of 2017.”

A Fairfield Inn, near Interstate 10 and Cook Street, has a projected October 2017 opening date.

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