Budget constraints continue to reduce staffing and response times of the Sheriff’s Department in the unincorporated areas of Riverside County. Staffing of 1.2 deputies per 1,000 population and two patrol cars on the Hill at all times was the norm as recently as two years ago.

Now, according to Hemet Station Commander Captain Scot Collins, staffing is near .75 deputies per 1,000 and, on occasion, depending on the need to pull deputies for other task force assignments, could be as low as .5. “Those support services [other task force staffing] count as part of the .75 deputies per 1,000,” noted Collins. Also, two cars on the Hill at all times is a thing of the past.

County Sheriff Stan Sniff notes that in all countywide unincorporated areas, staffing levels have not yet reached .75. “There is movement as we tighten down with transfers and attrition,” he said. Sniff observed that Hemet Station does serve the largest unincorporated population base and that factors into the number of deputies per thousand as well as average response times. “My executive staff watches and meters transfers, and we’re keeping an eye on response times,” he said. But he also noted that it is within the province of the Board of Supervisors and the County Executive Officer (CEO) to restore or maintain deputy staffing levels at the 1:1,000 level that had been current through the early summer.

As Sniff has pointed out to both the supervisors and the CEO in the past, he recounted it takes five years to prepare a deputy for what he calls “turn-key” status at an education and training cost per deputy of $750,000. “You can’t just dismiss them and then hire someone off the street,” he said. “Each deputy represents an enormous investment of taxpayer resources. Once dismissed, they are ripe for picking by other county and municipality police forces.” Sniff again noted what he sees as the impracticality of staffing down on police and fire protection while staffing up in other county areas such as Human Resources, Animal Control, Code Enforcement and Economic Development, something he said the county has done. “There is 25 percent less discretionary [county] money,” said Sniff. But the CEO has only reduced the county workforce 9 percent. “There is resistance to slimming down some functions of county government.”

Sniff said, from a budget perspective, the difference in staffing between one deputy per 1,000 and .75 per 1,000 is 120 or so deputy sheriffs — a salary cost to the county, said Sniff, of $12 million to $14 million. To replace those deputies, using Sniff’s education/training per deputy cost to get them to “turn-key” status, would cost the county $90 million. To Sniff, the math doesn’t make sense — saving $12 million to $14 million in costs now and then later having to spend $90 million to replace those deputies when conditions improve.

Commenting on how staffing affects response times, Hemet Station’s Collins said, “First thing we’re going to see is a lengthening of response times.” He summarized latest reports showing 8-1⁄2 to 10-1⁄2 minutes response times for priority one calls (clearly defined threat of violence and to human life with an incident in progress) and 18-1⁄2 to 18-3⁄4 minutes for an incident in progress but with no immediate threat to human life. “We move cars around based on the urgency of the incident and pull from other resources to keep up on the high-priority calls,” said Collins. “Now [because of budget cuts] there is no sworn member of Hemet Station that does not handle a patrol component.”

Idyllwild citizen groups, in response to recent community dialogue meetings, 2010 hate crimes and escalation of local graffiti attacks, are beginning to form neighborhood watches. In view of lengthening Sheriff’s Department response times, that may be a useful step. Neighborhood watches work with a law enforcement component, in this case Hemet Station, to track suspicious activity and help reduce crime in neighborhoods. “Neighborhood watches are a forceful deterrent,” said Sniff. “Most people in a community know the cars and people they normally see and can report suspicious activity.” Sniff noted that citizens’ patrols, like the Mountain Community Patrol, are also helpful. “But they need volunteers,” he said. “They provide a good counterweight to law enforcement.”