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Fewer Officers Tackling More Crime, Chief Tells the Council

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By Jorge Casuso

February 16, 2023 -- Facing a serious staffing shortage, Santa Monica police are initiating more calls for service, as both crime and arrests are on the rise, Police Chief Ramon Batista told the City Council Tuesday.

Facing a persistent shortage of officers on the streets, the department has been quickly adding new officers and expects to boost its force from the current 182 sworn officers to 250 by the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Batista said.

In addition to the low staffing level, 31 of the sworn officers are unavailable due to a spate injuries among the aging force ("Santa Monica Police Force Faces Record Shortage of Officers," April 15, 2022).

And the staffing shortage is expected to worsen before it improves, with 53 officers eligible to retire over the next two years, Batista told the Council.

"It is very challenging to fill the ranks," the Chief said. "It is going to take a few years before we get to a place where we can increase the number of officers."

Calls for service were up last year as Santa Monica continued slowly recovering from the coronavirus shutdown -- from 101,040 calls to 104,061, according to data presented by the Chief.

The increase was driven in large part by calls for service initiated by officers. Of the total calls for service in 2021, officers initiated 19,743 calls, while citizens initiated the other 81,272.

That number rose to 24,013 calls initiated by officers last year, while the calls initiated by citizens dropped to 79,865.

Calls for service, however, remain far below pre-pandemic levels, when there was a total of 132,514 calls for service in 2018 and 123,491 in 2019, compared to 101,015 last year.

Part I crime -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assaults, burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft and arson -- rose from 4,300 in 2021 to 4,724 last year, a ten percent increase.

Meanwhile, Part II crime -- which includes assaultive behavior, shoplifting, vandalism, weapons possession, open air drug use, drunkenness, disorderly conduct and vagrancy -- rose from 2,668 to 3,219, a 21 percent increase.

The officer-initiated calls for service not only helped drive up the number of crime reports, they helped account for an increase in arrests -- from 1,599 in 2021 to 2,439 last year, a 53 percent hike, Batista said.

Arrests remain far below pre-pandemic levels, when there were 3,774 arrests in 2018 and 3,840 in 2019, before dropping to 1,538 during the coronavirus shutdown.

SMPD is in the process of modernizing its technology -- which in many cases is three decades old -- and adding high-tech-driven strategies to address crime, Batista said.

These include the deployment of two drones and the immanent arrival of two dozen license plate reader cameras approved in 2019 that will ring the city at "ingress and egress points," the Chief said.

The cameras will help determine at what point a suspect entered the city and left and in what direction the vehicle was traveling.

Batista noted that new technology "is expensive" and "our ask is a big one." The Council seemed receptive.

"The request for technology is really, really critical," said Councilmember Caroline Torosis. "If we are going to attract" first-rate officers, “we need top-of-the-line 21st Century technology."

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