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In North County budgets, policing most expensive line item

REGION — North County cities have voted on their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year and law enforcement is the most expensive line item on all of them.

An analysis done by The Coast News shows that law enforcement ranged from a low of just over 10% of the budget expenditure in Del Mar to as high as over 43% in Escondido for each of the city’s most recent budgets. On the whole, North County cities had a median 25% budget allocation on law enforcement and an average of 28.2% expenditure.

While Del Mar had the lowest expenditure on law enforcement by percentage in its most recent budget, it also had the highest per capita expenditure on that line item, spending $568.09 per resident using 2017 U.S. Census estimates for its population. Vista spent the least per capita on law enforcement for North County cities at $245.16 per resident. The median per capita expenditure on law enforcement for North County cities was $304.55, while the average per capita cost for the most recent budget cycle was $338.99.

In the aftermath of recent fatal police shooting incidents in places such as Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore, hefty city police budgets have come into question by civil rights advocacy groups.

“Budgets are moral documents that reflect the values and priorities of our government, yet for communities of color, local budgets have too often come to represent their further oppression,” Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said in a press release about a 2017 report the group published examining budget expenditures in 12 different metropolitan areas nationwide. “In the wake of constant stories of police brutality and state violence, or news of departmental corruption and malfeasance, it is past time for us to start reimagining what safety means, how it is being resourced, and who is defining it.”

Responding to the findings, North County city leaders played down concerns about civil rights outcomes, saying the money spent have kept their communities safe and crime rates low.

“The city of Encinitas police budget is not atypically large compared to other cities with our population. According to a recent SANDAG report, Encinitas is actually in the lower third of per capita cost (in the county) which is an indication that the city has maximized resources with minimal cost,” said Paul Brencick an analyst with the city manager’s office. “We cannot comment on national law enforcement issues that do not pertain to us locally.”

Calling public safety among “the most fundamental services that cities provide,” San Marcos City Manager Jack Griffin lauded what the city gets for its money.

“We typically have or are close to having the lowest costs per capita for law enforcement costs for all cities in San Diego County and we also enjoy one of the lowest crime rates as well,” said Griffin. “We are proud of our partnership with the sheriff and the collaborative way we work together to maximize the use of our resources.”

In Escondido, the city with the highest percentage of money spent on law enforcement as part of its budget, City Manager Jeffrey Epp gave a nod to the “community’s priority for public safety as well as the cost to provide public safety services,” saying costs add up when accounting for salary and benefits of police officers and staff ranging from the officers, dispatchers, detectives, records personnel, custody transporters, support staff and others.

Carlsbad, Oceanside and Escondido are the only North County cities with their own police departments, with the rest contracting out the service to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss, whose city spent 38.9 %of its budget on law enforcement, added that area city expenditures are all high because departments compete “to keep pace” with one another to maintain competitive rates for salaries and benefits.

Vista City Councilwoman Corinna Contreras said she wished the city spent less on “boots on the ground” and more on social and a “preventative framework.”

“By preventative framework, I mean community-based programs like youth development programs, active transportation infrastructure, etc.,” said Contreras. “More programs that divert disconnected youth, who are the highest risk, from crime and vagrancy and connecting them to personal growth opportunities via mentorship, community leadership programs, etc.”

Contreras pointed to some of the work done by the Oceanside-based group North County Lifeline as an example of preventative framework. She added that she would like to see a more collaborative budget-making process between the city and its residents, akin to what Escondido has done under Mayor Paul McNamara.

While most local leaders downplayed concerns about large budgets for law enforcement, Brenden Beck — a professor of Sociology and Criminology & Law at the University of Florida — said that scholarship has shown that lowering crime rates nationwide have also led to disproportionate policing of people of color and in poverty for low-level offenses.

He also said that as police departments have moved away from “broken windows” style policing and toward community or social work oriented policing to tackle issues like homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness, budget expenditures for policing have risen in metropolitan areas nationwide.

“Historically, nationally, police budgets have been growing pretty steadily since the 1970s, which is interesting because crime was rising from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, but then it peaked in most cities and certainly nationally in the early-‘90s,” Beck said. “And since then, crime has been declining steadily and really enduringly. So, this police budget rise has been decoupled from the crime rise in the early-‘90s and police budgets went up even as crime went down.”

Much of that spending, Beck said in pointing to a scholarly paper he co-wrote about the topic in 2018, has aimed to bolster real estate development investments in an era of overall lowering crime rates and a decline in the manufacturing sector.

That decline in manufacturing has made jobs in the real estate sector and real estate investments even more central as an economic growth force, Beck said. And thus, police have become “more and more central in city economies,” Beck stated, with his scholarship pointing to a correlation between police budget growth and real estate market growth.

“Cities that underwent larger housing market growth also spent more on police because, we hypothesized, home prices and crime rates are so closely correlated that cities became dependent on housing market growth for their economic growth,” Beck said. “They wanted to protect that housing market growth, so they spent more on police to try to protect it.”