Strand outlines challenges in public safety

Police chief points to community collaboration as effective tool in fighting crime

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Strand outlines challenges in public safetyAfter years of a steady decline in overall criminal activity in Ridgecrest, Police Chief Ron Strand reported a slight increase last year and addressed the game-changers that led to current challenges in public safety.

In 2011 California took a series of actions to mitigate the budget crisis. Many of those actions, including AB 109 to “realign” the state prison system, have been criticized as merely deferring the financial burdens from state to local governments.

In order to save money, the state closed prisons and contracted the housing of inmates to counties. This meant that already crowded prisons had to release inmates with less serious charges to make room for the state inmates. Counties were given some money for shouldering their share of the load (though not enough, according to a letter signed by former Kern County Board of Supervisors Chair Zack Scrivner).

But when city police forces saw their responsibilities increase, they got zero additional funding for it.

“My goal remains the same — to keep Ridgecrest a safe community regardless of what is happening around us,” said Strand.

He told the News Review in 2011, shortly before some 1,200 prisoners were released that October, that a countywide multiagency coalition had formed in order to maximize resources and shore up efforts to maintain law and order. On the negative side, the city was now tasked with keeping tabs on those on probation and parole. But the city was at least given information on that population — something that only counties could access before.

So with less space to house prisoners, criminals are sometimes facing less (or no) jail time. But Strand said he is using every tool in his kit to shore up public safety. Keeping close tabs on known criminals is one, and increasing public education and collaboration is another.

Since Ridgecrest’s spike in crime has been lower than the county average, those tools seem to have played a role in buffering the effects of realignment. In 2012 Bakersfield reported a 20-percent increase in criminal activity. Although RPD information broke the numbers down differently, Strand said that statistics show a 10-percent increase in Part-One crimes (those classified as serious or violent), but an 8-percent decrease in other crimes.

“One of the most encouraging statistics to me is that our juvenile crime seems to be going down,” said Strand. Statistics for juvenile arrests showed a 10-percent drop between 2011 and 2012.

“The important thing is that we still respond to all crimes,” said Strand. “But the challenge we face is that you have a revolving door on certain classifications of criminals, since they don’t spend much time in jail. So someone who breaks into cars is typically back on the street in a few days.”

This is where the community can help, he said. “We are trying to push information out to the public so that they can protect themselves from becoming a victim.”

The most important thing is to lock up and secure your valuables. “Keep them locked up and out of sight, if you can.” He also encouraged the use of surveillance when possible and the formation of groups such as the Neighborhood Watch to deter potential theft.

RPD has been spared most of the deep cuts at City Hall, thanks in large part to the recent passage of Measure L, but Strand noted that his department is still dependent on support from the community.

He particularly spotlighted the volunteers of Police and Community Together, who donate about 13,000 hours annually toward public safety. He said those services range from vacation house checks to filing to securing a crime scene to directing traffic.

“There is a nationally recognized formula for determining what it saves a law enforcement agency not to have to pay for those services,” said Strand. It works out to more than $270,000 per year — or more than 6.5 full-time equivalent officers.

Strand said that he is looking at ways to track the data that will enable further leveraging of departmental resources.

One of the greatest driving forces in criminal activity — and one of the highest spikes in last year’s rise in crime — is the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Narcotic-related arrests showed a 16-percent climb last year.

Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason, who took the oath of office last week, said that cracking down on the use of methamphetamines was going to be one of his focuses.

“Addressing the drug problem mitigates crime,” said Strand. The challenge, like everything else, comes back to the availability of resources.

The philosophy behind the state’s realignment initiative was to increase rehabilitation and other programs that prevent recidivism. But with no funding for those at the city level, Strand said he is hoping that faith- and community-based organizations will come forward to help establish such programs.

“There has been some movement to open a Hope Center here, which provides us an avenue to help people who are battling drug addiction,” said Strand. “Right now the demand for support outweighs what we have available, but there may be some organizations that step up to the plate to help get this going.”

He said the Teen Court program — where teen lawbreakers submit to fines and penalties imposed by their peers and advisors — has been extremely successful in fighting juvenile delinquency. “If you look at juvenile arrests, those have been just about knocked in half from where they were four years ago.”

Another important partner in this endeavor has been Sierra Sands Unified School District, which has a resource officer to serve secondary schools.

“There are still ways we can improve, but there are some very heartening trends in our programs for at-risk youth,” said Strand. He has recently identified funding to hire an officer who will work exclusively with youth identified as at risk.

“The bottom line is that we are not taking a de-policing approach to realignment. But we are asking the community to consider their role in public safety. Some of these are not just criminal issues, they are family issues and community issues.

“We can look at our job as simply to arrest people who break the law, but in reality most of what drives criminal behavior starts long before we come into contact with them,” said Strand.

“One of the ways we are approaching community policing is by identifying and implementing a systems that catches people before they are addicted to drugs and before those people are running the streets committing crimes to support that habit. We want to identify people with mental illness and get them help before they get in trouble.

“Part of this is dependent on all of us — in a tight-knit community, I think a lot more people are prevented from falling through the cracks.”

Story First Published: 2013-01-09