Part of a new plan by the business community to rebrand downtown is to staff the city’s core with two patrolling officers. However, how these security guards will be paid has kicked off a new fight between police and city officials.
“There’s a lot of competition for customers, residents, commercial tenants, and downtown needs to be putting its best foot forward,” says Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association.
With businesses struggling to entice customers to downtown over Santana Row and other shopping/entertainment districts, as well as a 22 percent vacancy rate for downtown office space, Knies says the businesses formed a Property Based Improvement District (PBID) in late 2007 to tax themselves and direct funds to combat perceptions as well as reality. The PBID’s self assessment was renewed this week by an overwhelming vote of downtown property owners.
Part of PBID’s plan is to staff the downtown core with two patrolling officers, preferably off-duty police officers.
“Really, there’s no substitute for the professionalism, the training, the way a skilled officer interacts with the public,” Knies says. “They can just kind of read the street from afar. Sometimes they don’t even need to walk down the whole block. Just the fact that they’re on the corner dissipates the problem.”
Jim Unland, president of the Police Officers Association union, agrees with Knies’ assessment, which is why the police union is fighting to have the PBID officers paid at overtime rates rather than the significantly reduced rate of secondary employment positions, which often entail security work for schools and other nightlife areas like Santana Row and The Plant. (More than 60 officers have already applied for the positions.)
“My understanding of the Downtown Business Association is they want them actively patrolling the downtown streets, and proactively taking enforcement actions,” Unland says. “Well, that’s the definition of patrol work. So, they’re trying to replace patrol officers, with essentially off-duty patrol officers.
Tom Saggau, a political consultant for the police union as well as several downtown bars and nightclubs, says some of his latter clients have lobbied City Hall for a greater security presence in the downtown core to little avail. He says without off-duty police, “basically it’s going to be mall cops who are running around causing problems.”
Councilmember Sam Liccardo, whose District 3 includes downtown, rejects any notion that City Hall has resisted a greater police presence. “There’s one person who decides how to allocate officers, and that’s the police chief,” he says, “and I’m not throwing the chief under the bus.”
But some observers on the political periphery say that’s exactly what the police union is doing to Liccardo. The fight between the POA and Liccardo turned personal during the last two years of contentious pension reform negotiations, which ultimately fell apart and resulted in the council forming Measure B and voters passing the measure earlier this month.
Unland recently sent a letter out to POA membership slamming Liccardo for again going after their pay through the PBID patrol program.
Liccardo disputes claims that he was trying to short-sell officers’ pay by classifying the PBID work as a secondary employment instead of overtime.
“Let’s be clear, when you call it patrolling because they’re walking down the street or they’re standing in front of a club with a badge and police uniform, to me it’s a distinction without a difference,” Liccardo says. “ To me, the value of the officers is that there’s somebody there under the color of authority, with the skills and the training to enforce the law.”
Unland and the POA will be meeting this week with the city’s chief negotiator, Alex Gurza, to discuss PBID patrol compensation. While negotiations between the two parties have often gone next to nowhere in the past, the subject of secondary employment carries added significance after an audit in March found wide-spread abuses of the secondary employment program.
An attempt to challenge secondary employment classification for PBID patrol could risk work in other areas, such as schools, shopping centers and other arts and music festivals, Knies says.
“I’m not sure what their argument is, because it seems the scope of work is very similar to the scope of work for a lot of other secondary employment jobs. They’re actually putting their whole secondary employment in jeopardy.”