Special Section: San Bernardino

Before the San Bernardino City Council voted last week to see how much it would cost to have the Sheriff's Department police the city, more than 20 residents and officers argued against the move.

Officers know the city in ways deputies assigned to the largest county in the contiguous United States never could, many said.

The city also would lose control over the direction of policing, with little accountability from the county, others said.

But many representatives of the 14 cities that contract with the San Bernardino County sheriff - out of the county's 24 cities - said they've been fully satisfied with the policing they get from contracts with the sheriff.

"They're very responsive," said Highland Mayor Larry McCallon. "Our city manager meets regularly with the captain assigned to our station, and we work very closely."

McCallon said Highland has maintained quality services and a large reserve fund by contracting out for most services ever since it incorporated in 1987 in order to avoid being annexed by its larger neighbor, San Bernardino.

And deputies have kept the city safe and residents happy since, he said.

But Highland, with a population of less than 54,000, saw only 236 violent crimes in 2011, according to FBI statistics. Police in San Bernardino reported 1,861 violent crimes to the FBI that year - nearly eight times as many crimes in a city with four times as many people.

"There's no city in the county that has a crime rate that's as high as ours," said City Attorney James F. Penman, citing a fact borne out by FBI statistics. "And nobody but the San Bernardino Police Department has the actual experience of policing this city on a day-to-day basis."

Penman was among those pushing to ask for a cost estimate, though he says he doesn't necessarily support contracting out.

While it's been a decade since the last city contracted with the Sheriff's Department, others have looked - and turned back.

"We had $54,000 in our general fund and needed to cut public safety or we would be bankrupt," said Colton Councilwoman Deirdre Bennett, who in 2010 advocated asking the sheriff what it would cost to replace the Colton Police Department. "Our employees stepped up and our city manager was able to negotiate responsible concessions."

Bennett conceded that the police union campaigned against the changes, but in 2011 the city began making officers pay their full 9percent contribution to the CalPERS pension system and lower their salaries beginning in July 2012, then laid off eight of its 58 officers.

"We've been very happy to have our community police since then," Bennett said.

To balance its budget, San Bernardino would need concessions of 36percent, even though 80 officers have left since the department's peak employment, according to Penman.

Contracts with the Sheriff's Department are tailored individually, with cost to the city based on crime rate, the desired number of officers and other factors, said Lt. Anthony Onadera, head of the sheriff's public affairs office.

"We don't have a general policy," Onadera said, adding that he couldn't confirm what Penman said Sheriff Rod Hoops - who wasn't reachable - had said. "There's no typical length of duty (for deputies at a particular station)...but a lot of our officers live in the communities. We want to ensure the longterm viability of that contract."

Records from the State Controller's Office indicate that deputies' wages are similar to those of San Bernardino police.

Before overtime, deputy sheriffs made $55,681 to $82,236 annually in 2010, while San Bernardino police made $61,295 to $85,272, according to the state database, which largely matches up to numbers from the Human Relations Department. Both ranges go up based on promotions and overtime.

Police of a given rank in San Bernardino get the average of 10 like-sized California cities, as dictated in the city's charter - a document that voters would have to repeal for the department to contract out.

The top pay in the Police Department in 2010 went to a sergeant who made $317,179, and five people made more than $200,000. 

Sheriff Rod Hoops was the highest-compensated member of the Sheriff's Department, with $283,906 subject to Medicare, one of nine people over $200,000, according to the Controller's Office.

The savings with the Sheriff's Department are initially projected to come not from salary reductions or layoffs but from transferring most lieutenants, captains and the chief to other parts of the county and taking advantage of other economies of scale, Penman said.

Bigger has certainly proven to be more efficient in Adelanto, which in 2002 became the last city to enter into a contract with the Sheriff's Department.

"We're paying for a portion of a SWAT team, but getting the use of all of it whenever we need it, using all the resources of the Coroner's Office, whatever we need," said Cari Thomas, mayor of the 32,138-person city.

Thomas, who became mayor in 2010, two years after her election as councilwoman, said she and neighbors noticed an improvement in policing when the sheriff took over.

"Once they were in full swing, then we noticed more presence and quicker response times," Thomas said. "Being these economic times, we can't afford to keep a lot of deputies on shift, so for petty crimes and things like that (there's a delay), but for major crimes, response time is really good.

ryan.hagen@inlandnewspapers.com, 909-386-3916, @sbcitynow