As the sun set in Del Rey Park, a few blocks west of Santa Teresa Boulevard, about 40 residents gathered on folding chairs on a recent weeknight, with their children and dogs, to express a deep concern for growing criminal activity in their neighborhood.
Even in this middle-class housing development complete with freshly painted four bedroom homes and manicured lawns, crime is an issue on everyone’s mind. According to the residents, homes are being vandalized, cars are being burglarized, and drugs are sold in the park.
“My car has been egged every weekend for the past three weeks,” said Ravinder Grewal, a 10-year resident of Calle Del Rey.
Another man said his car was broken into a few weeks ago right in his driveway.
Each resident had their own story, but they all agreed on one thing: They’ve had enough, and are looking to the Gilroy Police Department and City Council for answers.
“This is reflective of a bigger problem, and I hope that election candidates take it seriously,” said Scott Clymer at the neighborhood gathering Wednesday night. “We want to know, what is their plan?”
The “plan” varies, depending on which candidate is talking. As the Nov. 6 mayoral election approaches, the three candidates – Councilman Dion Bracco, Councilman Peter Arellano and Don Gage, former Gilroy mayor and Santa Clara Valley Water District board member – take on the issue from different angles.
Gage thinks the solution lies in hiring more police staff.
“I think they are undermanned right now,” Gage said. “People have been complaining about graffiti, traffic issues, and when they call the police on stuff that is non-critical, there is nobody available to come out right away because they are all tied up. The only way to solve that problem is through more personnel.”
Gage believes that after nine quarters of positive sales tax growth feeding into city coffers, the city has the money to hire about three more police officers to “replenish” the staffing the department once had.
With GPD’s entry-level police officer annual salary at $75,396, three entry-level hires would equal about a $226,000 yearly budget expenditure.
“Public safety is a basic right, and if people don’t feel protected by their police, that is a huge problem,” he said.
In 2009, the police department faced 14 percent staffing cutbacks, when their staff of 63 sworn officers shrank to 54 because of a major belt-tightening across all city departments, according to Police Chief Denise Turner.
Today, Turner said staffing levels have been restored to 59 sworn officers, from a combination of a few federal grants and the restoration of the city’s budget.
“I think the cuts were difficult in the beginning, but this is our new normal, and I think we’re doing really well with what we have,” Turner said.
Turner did say that many lower-priority calls can sit in the queue for three hours or more before an officer responds, but that the department is hitting their goal to arrive at high priority and emergency calls in less than five minutes.
“We try to explain to people that we have to prioritize every call, but I still think people get annoyed when they have to wait for hours,” she said. “Unfortunately, so much of patrol time now is spent just going from call to call. My goal is to get the patrol staff to spend more time doing proactive policing, not just responding to calls.”
But by no means did Turner classify her staffing situation as dire, only mentioning her “wish list” includes increasing patrol staffing levels during the day, when at any given time there could be, at minimum, just one supervisor and three officers out patrolling.
“Our service level is reduced from what it was once, but we’re still getting the job done,” she said.
Bracco believes that the solution to crime, at least for now, lies in more preventative measures, as there’s just not the money to increase police staffing in the city’s budget.
“They sure do a lot with the resources they have,” Bracco said. “We can only have what we can afford, and there is only so much money right now. I’d love to tell people, ‘Sure I’m gong to hire more cops,’ but that would just be me blowing hot air.”
Bracco said in the meantime, there are things he would do as mayor to lighten the load for police, such as focusing on youth crime prevention programs.
“Police are for suppression, they are good at arresting people, locking them up and making a legal case against them. If we as a community focus on prevention and intervention, we can free up police to not have to be social workers,” he said.
Bracco sits on both the anti-gang task force and the South Valley Youth Task Force, which focus on communication between police departments, school districts and the District Attorney’s Office to share information about certain teens who may be headed toward a life of crime.
“You can’t have police on every block, no matter how many we have. We all have got to do our part,” he said.
Arellano also said he would focus on preventative measures, such as funneling more money to the parks and recreation department to fund more programs for at-risk teens, rather than hiring more police.
“I would have to analyze it before I just looked at the numbers and said ‘yeah, we need more cops,’” Arellano said.
Arellano said he would look at what pockets of Gilroy lend themselves to the most criminal activity, and focus on those areas, as well as look at the areas, specifically within the police department that need the most help.
And overall, Arellano sees Gilroy as a safe place.
“I don’t feel any problems walking or riding my bike in town. I’ll go downtown, I go to the old side of town. If you’re out late at night, something can happen in any neighborhood in the country. People get mugged, people get robbed, but that can happen anywhere. You just have to be aware,” he said.
As a current Councilman who is running for re-election, Perry Woodward winced at the idea of hiring more police officers, which he believes would be an allocation of scarce resources.
“The problem, the way I see it, is we’re already spending 80 percent of the city’s general fund on public safety, with 54 percent spent in the police department,” Woodward said. “In a perfect world, of course we would hire more. But I’m not crazy about spending any more money on public safety than we already do.”
Woodward did say, however, if Turner came to the Council and said the department absolutely needed more staffing, he would take a second look.
“But I don’t hear her saying that,” he said. “The reality is, we have almost as many cops today as we’ve ever had.”
When the sun had completely set Wednesday night, the informal meeting of neighbors adjourned, and people mingled outside their homes in the summer’s evening breeze. During their discussion, they decided to write a letter to City Council and sign it from “concerned Gilroy voters.”
They agreed to continue to call the police when they see teens getting high in the park, on the late-night teen parties that spill into the street, and when their cars are egged or their bikes are stolen.
“If we all continue to report, they’re going to get it, that this is a real problem,” said neighborhood resident Erin Straub, who facilitated the evening’s conversation.
But the group also decided to take some initiative on their own, by agreeing to look out for each other’s property, each other’s children, and by sending the men of the neighborhood to walk the park at night.
“We can all do our part,” Straub said. “We all can play a role in making this a safe place to live.”