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By Carolyn Jones
The San Francisco Chronicle

VALLEJO, Calif. - Vallejo, already in an economic tailspin, has lost about 20 percent of its police force since the city began its slide into bankruptcy.
About 25 of its 150 or so sworn officers have retired or left for other cities, afraid their pensions or salaries may be slashed if a federal bankruptcy court allows the city to void its union contracts.
"It's a tragic loss for this city," said Vallejo police Lt. Don Hendershot. "We've lost a lot of dedicated, experienced officers. It's very sad seeing these guys go, but I understand why they're leaving."
The North Bay city of 117,000 filed for bankruptcy in May, faced with a $16 million deficit, an imploding housing market and skyrocketing public employee costs. A U.S. bankruptcy judge in Sacramento is expected to rule by the end of the month whether the city meets Chapter 9 bankruptcy criteria and can begin renegotiating its debts.
News of the bankruptcy had an immediate impact on local crime, Hendershot said.
"As soon as they started talking about it, back in February, we saw crime jump," he said. "Criminals know we're short staffed. Now we're seeing people coming here from Richmond and Oakland, because they think it's fertile ground."
Robberies in Vallejo have doubled from this time last year, although homicides and other violent crimes are about the same, police said. Vallejo had 361 robberies and 15 homicides in 2007, according to FBI crime statistics. Nearby Richmond, by comparison, had 47 homicides and 492 robberies.
Vallejo is not alone in seeing a jump in robberies, however. Many Bay Area cities have been plagued by robberies due, in part, to the faltering economy.
But some in Vallejo say the police union is using staffing issues to gain public favor during the bankruptcy proceedings.
"This is a public relations campaign to scare people," said City Councilwoman Stephanie Gomes. "I think for the police to say they can't handle certain crimes is completely irresponsible, disrespectful, and for people who live here, very threatening."
In the past year or so, the Police Department has lost half of its records staff, its crime analyst, community services and crime suppression units and eight of its 14 detectives, Hendershot said.
Typical swing shifts used to have 16 patrol officers, compared with about 12 now.
Recruiting has become almost impossible because of the city's shaky financial future and competition from other Bay Area cities, such as Oakland and San Francisco, which are offering hefty signing bonuses to new officers, Hendershot said.
"I didn't become a police officer for the money," said Sgt. Kenny Park. "I'm here because I love Vallejo. But it's a simple numbers game - the more cops we have, the more effective we can be."
Vallejo, the largest city in California to file for bankruptcy, spends about 74 percent of its general fund on police and fire costs, compared with the 50 percent or so most California cities spend.
To meet its payroll, the city has slashed funding to public works, libraries, senior centers, museums and other amenities, although the unions say the city has stashed money in other accounts to distort the percentage spent on public safety.
Around town, reaction to police staffing was mixed.
"We just moved here from Richmond, and I've slept better than I have in years," said Renetta Sutton, a paralegal who was shopping at Wednesday's farmers' market. "There's not as many sirens or ambulances. I feel much safer here, and I think the police have been great."
Robbie Dizer, a nurse who has lived in Vallejo about four years, said she has noticed an increase in crime.
"It's scary and it's sad," she said. "There's a lot of stuff going on in this town, and I worry about the young people. There's nothing for them to do but get in trouble."
Katy Meissner, a community activist who has lobbied for the city to renegotiate its public safety contracts, said the Police Department should reorganize its staffing anyway.
"You can add another 100 officers and break-ins will still happen because we're in a tight economy," she said. "Community policing and getting to know your neighbors is the way to reduce crime, not putting more officers in cars."
Vallejo police Lt. Rick Nichelman said the community outcry has been devastating for police morale.
"We're burnt emotionally," he said. "They say we're the cash cow that broke the city. It's not true, but the upshot is that we feel unwanted."

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In other news Hubbardston, MA is pretty much in the same boat. Because of its liberal citizens. No Police, kids who can't learn in 50 student class rooms, its all good.
 
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