SAN JOSE -- A police department beset by staffing shortages and under routine fire from irked residents sought some balance Wednesday by highlighting patrol work that over the past week solved separate strings of armed robberies and burglaries.
In tough budget times, the cloud of police understaffing looms over every public-safety discussion in the country's 10th largest city. Without dismissing those troubles, the department said the cases illustrate how the officers who remain, while stretched as never before, are still doing effective work.
"No matter what happens around these officers, what environment, they go out in the field and get it done," said Sgt. Jason Dwyer, a police spokesman.
The trumpeting comes on the heels of two high-profile cases that have embodied residents' frustration about a dwindling patrol force and the ensuing slowed response times: the home-invasion robbery Monday of an elderly couple and the New Year's Eve killing of an alleged burglar by an apartment maintenance worker.
Interim Police Chief Larry Esquivel said shortly before he took his post that he wanted to boost morale within the department and stem the exodus of officers unhappy over wage and benefit cuts.
"This is going to be the first of many opportunities to highlight positive work," Dwyer said. "With the current climate, there's so much focus on the negative. This is not an eraser, but we want to push the positive."
Police brass are highlighting two capers that were solved within minutes of each other Sunday night. The first involved a string of commercial burglaries in South San Jose in the area of Highway 85 and Meridian Avenue. Police say Officers Chris Drew and Douglas Gates were following up on the reports and found a vehicle seen at or near the burglaries and after processing it for evidence got on the trail of four people they suspected of committing the thefts.
They arrested two adults and two juveniles after finding them with stolen property and connected them to nine burglaries, including two that were committed in nearby Campbell. Councilman Donald Rocha represents the area, which experienced a 50 percent increase in burglaries and a car-theft spike topping 90 percent over the past year.
"The increase in residential burglaries is a major concern, and residents are making it very clear that they're not happy with it," Rocha said. "It's unanimous from the mayor and council that police have done a fantastic job given the resources they have. Any shortcomings are on our backs, not the police department's. Our job is to go forward and reinvest in public safety."
About 10 minutes after the burglary case was closed, two men, one of them armed, robbed a pedestrian on Durant Avenue off Senter Road around 10:30 p.m. and drove away. The victim's description of their vehicle helped Officer Chris Camarillo spot the fleeing car near Monterey Highway and Curtner Avenue. The two occupants were arrested and found with property linking them to two other armed robberies, police said. Officers also found a loaded gun in the car.
Dwyer said the cases exemplify what a skilled patrol force can accomplish.
"One is where they're being vigilant and being in the right place at the right time. The other is doing detective work," he said.
That investigative burden is increasingly falling on patrol officers on the beat, Dwyer said. A number of those officers have experience in investigations through serving rotations as detectives or because they were detectives before being reallocated to the street to bolster patrol.
"A lot of these burglary arrests are being made by detective-level investigations at the patrol level," Dwyer said.
As of the beginning of January, fewer than 600 officers were assigned to patrol about one million residents, meaning that at any given time around 70 are manning the streets. The size of the overall force has shrunk from 1,409 in 2008 to 1,061, a figure that includes not-yet-street-ready recruits.
Dwyer said as recently as 2005, 40 percent of patrol officers workloads were designated as "free time," an opportunity to perform follow-up work on investigations and develop their beat. That has all but disappeared, resulting in a diminished ability to close cases like the serial burglaries solved Sunday.
"This is just one scenario; how many others like this aren't investigated because they don't have time?" Dwyer said. "There could be evidence there, and they don't have the time because there are 30 calls waiting."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.