SELMA – After hearing a police department staffing level report, Selma City Council members say they want to hire more police officers and pay the current staff better salaries. No definitive plan of how to immediately do so was presented at the Oct. 2 council meeting, however.

City Manager Dave Elias said the council will look at next year’s city budget starting in February to see how more funds can go toward hiring more officers.

Citizens anxious about gun fire, gang activity and crime, however, continued to demand that more officers be hired sooner than that.

“We’re going to hell here and we need help,” Selma resident Yolanda Torrez said recalling her family’s experiences. “My daughter came home by Heartland School and missed gun fire by a few minutes. She had to call me from the high school during that shooting [saying] ‘Mom, help me I don’t know what to do.’ She was on top of little kids saving kids.”

Council members said the only way to afford to hire more officers and increase their salaries is to bring in more taxes from new businesses and more housing. To do that, however, requires spending money to improve sewer systems and streets, Councilman Louis Franco said.

“The bottom line is our city infrastructure is in dire straits. Unless we rectify that, we’ll constantly be lacking the resources. Without growth in this community to expand housing and commercial business, we’re always going to be chasing our tail,” he said.

The police department staffing level report given by Police Chief Greg Garner showed that 30 of the 32 budgeted positions are filled. Garner said even more officers should be hired and their pay increased.

“Ideally, we should hire 13 new officers. I can tell you specifically how and where I’d use them. They’re the lowest paid group of the cities we looked at. I strongly encourage the City Council to do whatever they can do to improve its ability to add more officers and pay them better,” he said.

Garner also provided a crime report for the past 60 days that statistically shows crime rates are decreasing. Citizens filling the council chambers that evening say that data doesn’t make them feel safe and they want more officers hired sooner than later.

Several residents spoke up about issues in Brentlinger Park where they said homeless people are loitering, entering vacant homes for sale nearby and stealing from their yards.

Frank Martinez said he’s even had bullets strike his house.

“My house got shot,” Martinez said relaying how even simple items such as gopher traps are stolen from his yard. “I want to know what you’re going to do about that park. Can we have an ordinance so we close it at 10 o’clock?”

Councilwoman Yvette Montijo said since the city’s crime issues started decades ago solutions will take time.

“There are issues that we do need to take care of, but there isn’t going to be a quick fix,” she said. “In order to solve this problem, it’s going to require a three-pronged approach,” she said explaining that thwarting gangs takes prevention, intervention and suppression. “Prevention and intervention are least costly. Suppression, and that’s where we’re operating now with the police officers and wanting to bring in the [Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium], is very expensive. It probably doesn’t yield the best results.”

Montijo said the council is currently examining financing options to beef up the police department’s staffing levels.

“We’re examining our options. I hope the [police] chief and [Finance Department Manager] Isaac [Moreno] will have some insight for us and then we’ll move forward together.”

Councilman Scott Robertson said he shares the residents’ concern as he lives down the street from Martinez.

“When I saw that bullet hole in your house that was like a bullet hole in my house. I say, ‘Not in our town,’” he said of his resolve to create a plan to deal with the gang issue. “I don’t only hear your frustrations, but I share it. We’re looking for solutions.”

Torrez was among residents who said immediate changes, even if they’re not long-term, are needed.

“Between all of you and the chief, I think you guys need to come up with something now even if it’s putting on a patch or a Band-Aid,” she said. “We need you to work with us to find a solution. Our kids are getting shot and killed and our houses are getting shot at."

Audience members offered suggestions such as using gang injunctions, cutting funds from other departments, calling in the Fresno County Sheriff’s deputies, eradicating graffiti and tackling citywide clean-ups to thwart some of the gang issues.

“I think we’re to a point where we need to take sworn, fully armed police officers out of administrative positions temporarily and put them on the street,” Selma resident Brandon Shoemaker suggested.

Chief Garner said he wouldn’t recommend such a move.

“The positions he’s talking about moving have meaningful jobs that can’t be put aside for however long we take these people out of their jobs. A good example is we had a 15-year-old boy stabbed this weekend. I needed both of my detectives to work that. If one was working patrol, I wouldn’t have had them both working that. Because they were working together, we were able to identify that subject and took him in to custody yesterday,” Garner said.

Shoemaker responded that while the administrative work may be important, he feels the community is at a crisis point.

“To say one officer per shift won’t make a difference, I don’t believe that. I won’t stand for it as a voter and a taxpayer. So if that’s going to be the response, when the four officers leave at the end of the year to go to other agencies, we’re going to be hurting a lot worse than that.”

City Manager Dave Elias said it isn’t just a matter of hiring more officers, but also keeping the ones already on the force.

“It’s important we make sure we’re retaining the ones we have. You have officers that have been here awhile that have institutional knowledge of this community and who you’re dealing with and where the problem areas are at. We’re pretty close as far as patrol officer numbers compared to cities like Reedley and Dinuba, but it’s a matter of retention. Hopefully in our budget process starting in February, we’ll be able to look at both retention and the ability to add officers.”

Andrew Guzman, president of the Selma Police Officers’ Association, says only 17 of the 30 current staff members actually patrol the streets and respond to citizens’ calls.

“In 2011, there were 24,” Guzman said. “The POA is kind of in a tough spot. Do we want raises or do we want officers?”

Guzman said even in his neighborhood near Abraham Lincoln Middle School there have been shootings and stabbings. Thus, as a resident he can see the need for more officers. As an officer, however, he says low pay is among the reasons officers are leaving.

“As the president of the association, I’d obviously love a raise. I will tell you retention is a huge problem. Chief is having a problem keeping guys. Pay is one of the top issues. Of course I’m the union president so I’ll say it’s also morale and equipment. I could go through a laundry list of things that I think are not keeping these guys here.”

Guzman said he’s hopeful those raises are coming but says he’s aware that officers are making plans otherwise.

“I’m a police officer and we don’t do the job for the money necessarily. I’m still here, but I can tell you there are four employees trying to leave the department, including myself. I have applied out. If we got a raise, I might change my mind.”

To answer other questions raised at an earlier Council meeting, Garner said the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC) has been involved in patrol efforts in town, most recently in August where eight agencies and 30 officers made 22 arrests, 18 of which were gang members.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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