Petaluma police struggle with historically low staffing levels

Facing historically low staffing levels, the Petaluma Police Department is struggling to keep up on its calls after a slew of officers were injured or quit.

"We're going to emergency schedules," said Petaluma Police Lt. Mike Cook. "When people call 911, they expect they will receive a police response in a timely manner. But we're struggling to even do that. We prioritize the emergency calls, we stagger shifts, we limit extra patrol activities, but it's very difficult to simply handle the day-to-day calls."

It's been more than a year since Petaluma Police Chief Patrick Williams launched his community-based "Petaluma Policing" program, which, among other things, reinstated a full-time police officer on the Petaluma High School campus. Known as a student resource officer, the position formerly existed at several Petaluma school campuses before it was eliminated in 2009 during city budget cuts.

So when Williams decided to remove one of the department's 62 officers from the street and station him full-time at Petaluma High School last year, saying that the department had enough staff to forego one patrol officer, community members were excited.

But after serious injuries sidelined at least two officers, others left the force and a sergeant gave notice of his intent to retire, the department struggled to cover every patrol shift and student resource officer John Antonio was called back to patrol in December.

Currently, Petaluma has about 56 police officers on duty, though the department is budgeted for 62 officers. Several spots are currently open from officers leaving the department and the city has hired at least two new recruits to fill the vacant positions. But Cook, who runs the department's Petaluma Policing program, pointed out that getting new hires trained takes at least a year.

Cook said that because of the lack of officers, the department is staffing the same amount of patrol officers during the day as it is at night -#8212; something that is not considered safe. During day shifts, extra administrative officers are on duty -#8212; like lieutenants and the police chief -#8212; who can assist officers on duty if a critical incident or mass casualty accident occurred, Cook explained. He added that this is the lowest staffing the force has had since 1991, when the city's population was about 43,500, compared to more than 58,000 now.

"I haven't seen staffing this low in 20 years," a frustrated Cook said Monday. "And I have never seen it this low, with this many people, ever."

City Manager John Brown said the low police staffing level is temporary, since it is based mostly on officer injuries. But he added that he couldn't predict when the issue would be resolved.

Petaluma City Schools District officials and neighbors of Petaluma High School were dismayed to learn the police department had pulled the campus officer back to the streets to help cover the under-staffed daily patrol shifts.

"Those of us who live close to the high school see a huge difference when the school has an officer stationed on campus," said Western Avenue resident Laura Patterson. "I know it's not the police department's fault that they are short-staffed and underfunded, but I hope that the city can find a way to fund these positions."

Patterson said that after Antonio started working at the school, she noticed an immediate change in her neighborhood.

"When we first moved to Western Avenue in 2010, we would always see kids during school hours smoking cigarettes and marijuana right in front of our home," said Patterson. "But once officer Antonio got to campus, I didn't see any of that. Kids weren't roaming around during the day anymore."

Patterson said it wasn't long after Antonio left Petaluma High School that she began to notice issues in the neighborhood again. "Kids returned to wandering around the neighborhood, drug deals started happening and things went back to the way they were," she said. "I was amazed at how quickly things changed back."

Cook pointed out that when it's a struggle to simply respond to every emergency call, programs like the student resource officer are the first to go, "Which is sad because we saw such an improvement in the neighborhood around the school," said Cook. "It was working out really well, and we are hoping to bring it back soon."

Dave Rose, Petaluma City Schools director of student services, said the district is disappointed with the loss.

"We understand the police department's struggles, but it is such a shame to lose that valuable resource," said Rose. "Anytime we have a police officer working directly with the students, we notice major changes in school attendance, discipline hearings and our knowledge of local behavior trends. We are really going to miss the help and we hope it comes back soon."

Cook said he doesn't know how long it will be until a student resource officer is returned to the school campus, but it remained a high priority for the department.

"We haven't backed off and we aren't taking a break from progress," said Cook. "It has just become that much more difficult for now."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)