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Half Moon Bay Prepares to Dissolve Police Department

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Since it incorporated in 1959, the City of Half Moon Bay has had a police force.  Now, after 52 years in service and an ongoing fiscal crisis, the department is going away to save just over a half million dollars a year.

On Saturday the Half Moon Bay City Council voted to begin merger talks with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.  The County's bid prevailed over a competing offer from the Pacifica Police Department.  Half Moon Bay has fewer than 16 full-time jobs in its police force, and those will become Sheriff's Office jobs provided the deal goes through as planned.

In a sad, sometimes tearful meeting, police staff made peace with the end of their department.  No one really pushed back against the closure, says Interim Police Chief Lee Violett.

"I think everybody in the room agreed that, whether they said it or not... that the time has come to do this," Violett said.  "And maybe a sense that it should've been done a couple of years ago."

Half Moon Bay has been cutting spending since the 2007-08 fiscal year.  Expenses are down 20% since then, according to a city budget analysis, and the city's workforce is 45% smaller.  The cuts sped up after Half Moon Bay lost a land use lawsuit in March 2009, forcing budget cuts including 19 lost jobs.  Five of those jobs were in the police department.


Currently the city spends about 40 cents of every dollar on police services.  But even with the savings from outsourcing law enforcement, the city analysis projects that Half Moon Bay's reserves could run out by FY 2013-14.

This deal is designed to save money by switching the existing officers to SMCSO and getting rid of duplicate infrastructure.  Half Moon Bay might no longer need a 911 call center, for example, because the County has one.  Currently the city has eight full-time police officers.  Under this deal, it would have six full-time deputies and share two deputies who already work the coast.  It's unclear, however, what exactly would become of the existing police buildings.

SMCSO also covers Portola Valley, San Carlos and Woodside, as well as Caltrain and SamTrans.  San Carlos contracted out its police force in October 2010.  A letter from San Carlos Interim City Manager Jeff Maltbie shows that felony arrests are up 70% since the takeover.

The Sheriff's Office's offer includes a police dog, school resource/Police Athletic League officers and a detective for major crimes: none of which Half Moon Bay currently has.  SMCSO also plans to provide community policing and to waive fees for booking and crime lab services.

Chief Violett says there's no hard deadline for closing the deal, though he'd like to get underway as soon as possible.  His first move: meeting with Undersheriff Carlos Bolanos to begin working out details.  In the meantime he no longer has to keep his officers on pins and needles, waiting for the budget ax to drop.

"I gave one employee, the poor guy, two or three extensions on a layoff notice," Violett recalls.  "This young officer has a family and a house, needs to make house payments.... That's been hanging over the department for probably a couple of years."

Read the statement of a 12-year veteran of the Half Moon Bay Police Department.

Listen to KQED Morning Anchor Joshua Johnson talk with Interim Police Chief Lee Violett about Saturday's meeting:

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