San Jose explores reducing police staffing at outdoor events

    San Jose city leaders are looking to reduce police presence at major outdoor events — a cost-savings measure first suggested by Mayor Sam Liccardo last summer.

    The mayor last June asked city administrators to find “ways to safely reduce the city’s police staffing requirements at major events” such as the San Jose Jazz Festival, Silicon Valley Pride Parade and Christmas in the Park. The idea, according to Liccardo, is to reduce costs for nonprofit groups who must foot the bill for cops to patrol their events.

    The costs stem from hiring “secondary employment unit” officers to oversee traffic control for street closures and staff outdoor events where alcohol is served, according to city documents. Now, city leaders are considering replacing police officers who handle traffic control with portable barriers.

    “By investing in additional types of equipment, police staffing at some events may be reduced,” wrote San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia, Department of Transportation Director John Ristow and Deputy City Manager Kim Walesh in a memo. “Portable vehicle incursion barriers or permanent built-in street closure equipment could be used to shut down portions of impacted streets.”

    “If feasible, staff will pilot test these barriers for use during outdoor special events, enabling the city to ascertain their effectiveness for safe traffic control and in reducing or controlling event costs,” the trio continued.

    And while some safety advocates might balk at San Jose reducing police presence at outdoor events amid heightened security around the country, some local event organizers are embracing the idea to help reduce the costs of putting on events.

    “We hope that they consider subsidizing the overtime pay for SEU officers, and/or find creative solutions to make street closures easier and less costly,” said Bree von Faith, director of marketing, communications and events for the San Jose Downtown Association, “while still maintaining the level of safety that we want to have at our events, and that we know the city would also like to have at the events.”

    The memo points out that the City Council allocated $150,000 in funding to help offset costs to event organizers and nonprofits. Some of that money will go toward testing the barriers and their effectiveness for reducing police officer staffing during street closures.

    “The cost of police services for events has been a fairly long-standing challenge that event producers have been facing,” von Faith said. “It is becoming challenging for us to stage free or low cost events with the increase in costs, including the police overtime costs.”

    City officials said the police department’s SEU officers —  those who are off-duty and work outside their daily schedules — get paid far less than officers in other major cities.

    Currently, SEU officers make $55 an hour; sergeants make $70.95 an hour; and lieutenants makes $82.18 an hour. Lieutenant Scott Johnson said these officers earn less than 11 different California police departments — with Sacramento being the only exception.

    In Santa Clara County, police departments in Campbell, Fremont and Santa Clara pay higher SEU rates.

    An overtime rate for event staffing jobs through the SEU was set in 2014, and can be changed only by the police chief — though it has not increased since it was set, according to the memo.

    “The chief has the discretion to up the rate, but over the last couple of years, his focus has been more about general staffing and staffing for services for patrol,” Johnson said.

    According to the memo, when more than two officers are required for an event or the unit receives a job request at the last minute, SEU is often unable to staff jobs at the current pay rate. “Officers are hesitant to work for less than their hourly rate when they are able to work other patrol overtime assignments at time-and-a-half of their hourly rate,” the memo said.

    San Jose’s push to reduce police presence at outdoor events comes as cities across the country have ramped up security efforts in the face of public threats and gun violence, such as the deadly shooting during an outdoor concert on the Las Vegas Strip that killed 58 people.

    But Johnson said safety of event attendees is still “paramount” for the San Jose Police Department.

    “We’ve been able to staff the events at a level that we’re comfortable with, and we’ve never had to staff anything we’re not comfortable with,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t mean that every officer assignment we wanted filled was filled, it’s just we’re comfortable with where it got staffed.”

    With more than 450 events in San Jose every year, Johnson said SJPD has never canceled an event in the two years he’s been on the force. “And we have a good track record going where we don’t have accidents,” he said.

    But, Johnson added, that doesn’t mean the police department and its SEU officers aren’t stretched thin.

    “If you have Viva Calle, you have a Sharks game, you have Avaya, you have Santana Row — you have all these different venues that need to hire officers at the same time,” Johnson said, “sometimes it puts us in a shortage of finding officers to work the events.”

    City lawmakers will discuss the reduction of police staffing at major events during a City Council committee meeting on April 22.

    Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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