Courts & Crime

Fresno police and sheriffs in political shootout over patrols

In the escalating debate over how to save a law-enforcement system bleeding cash in Fresno County, one question comes up repeatedly: Why does the Sheriff's Office patrol large areas inside Fresno and Clovis city limits?

Fresno city officials think police, who already are deployed around islands of unincorporated land, could do the job more efficiently. But proposals to consolidate patrol areas have drawn fire from residents, many of whom are fiercely loyal to the deputies.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Police Chief Jerry Dyer blame the union that represents sheriff's deputies for unfairly influencing the debate with a direct-mail campaign last year intended to save jobs.

It's a campaign, they say, waged with false and incomplete information.

In a series of mailers, the Fresno Deputy Sheriff's Association slammed the idea of consolidating police service, calling it a prelude to annexation that would degrade police service. The mailers also criticized the Fresno Police Department, including some controversial remarks about its handling of sex offenders.

Swearengin has insisted that annexation was never part of the deal, and she sent island residents a letter in October explaining her position.

The union's mailers also made questionable claims that the Sheriff's Office is better staffed to patrol the islands than the Police Department. Research paid for by the Sheriff's Office has found it doesn't have the resources needed to serve the islands.

Residents of county islands have parroted some of the union's arguments. Some residents who are outspoken in their opposition to consolidation acknowledge that they got their arguments from the union.

Eric Schmidt, president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association, defends the campaign.

He said it helped show the strong support enjoyed by the Sheriff's Office.

But Dyer says the union killed the debate before the city could evaluate whether it made economic sense. The department patrols around all the islands, so it's likely the city can provide service cheaper than the county can, he said.

Any savings could be used for other law-enforcement costs, such as keeping inmates locked up in the Fresno County jail, Dyer and Swearengin say.

Al Smith of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed city and county officials to merge law-enforcement services, said the need to look at county-island patrols has never been greater.

Since Fresno County supervisors opposed the city's policing proposal in December, Sheriff Margaret Mims' budget problems have grown.

Facing a $7 million shortfall, Mims has closed parts of the jail and released more than 1,000 inmates early to save money.

Like Smith, Tony Pings of the Fig Garden Homeowners Association would like some objective research on policing county islands. The Sheriff's Office does a good job patrolling his northwest Fresno neighborhood, with the help of a subsidy from the homeowner's association for an extra patrol, he said.

But the Deputy Sheriff's Association hasn't helped residents understand the issues, Pings said.

"They've been vilifying the police, and that's completely wrong," said Pings, vice president of the homeowners association. "This is too critical of a decision to be made without facts."

In one of its mailers, the union invited island residents to "do the math" on "the facts."

The mailer said the sheriff "has 50 to 60 deputies assigned to the county pockets ... compared to the 5 or 6 officers the city is proposing for the same area."

Read the full story at the Fresno Bee.