This is the reality of life in Fresno, and it doesn’t matter where you live.

Every time you park your car, you wonder if a window will be smashed and everything inside will be stolen. This has happened to me twice in the last year.

Opinion

Darius Assemi

Over the past few years, Fresno has averaged 900 robberies and 4,500 burglaries annually.

You go to work every day hoping that you won’t return to find power tools taken from your garage, electronics swiped from your home, or even your pet missing.

Why should we be surprised when local businesses and longtime residents pack up and leave Fresno when these crimes happen more than they should? Over the past few years, Fresno has averaged 900 robberies and 4,500 burglaries annually.

It pains me to admit these things because I love Fresno with all my heart. It’s where members of my immigrant family and I chose long ago to build our lives.

But until our city corrals this out-of-control crime, I can’t support the effort to raise the Fresno sales tax by 3/8 of a cent for public parks, trails, and cultural arts. If the hike is approved, Fresno’s sales tax climbs to 8.35%.

Meanwhile, the Clovis sales tax stays at 7.975%, with ample parks and trails. You can bet that Fresno consumers seeking a better deal on big-ticket items like electronics and furniture will head to Clovis.

Consider what our own DA, Lisa Smittcamp, says about Measure P:

“Without proper law enforcement staffing in the city of Fresno, parks become a breeding ground for increased criminal activity. We need to focus on making the city and the parks we already have, safer before we fund additional parks.”

I Love Parks and Cultural Arts

Parks provide many benefits to our community. That’s why every Granville neighborhood built over the last 10 years includes parks and trails. We even helped the city of Fresno secure the $2.5 million in state grants to build the Cultural Arts Park in downtown Fresno.

Don’t forget, the city already spends nearly $13 million a year on parks. And here’s something that people aren’t talking about. Measure P locks in that $13 million, which in a recession could subject police and fire to cuts. Is that what we want?

Well-maintained, parks and trails make for a better Fresno. They create a sense of community, a place for families to gather and engage in recreation.

And, clearly, we do need more parks in our southern neighborhoods.

But there is something you should know about Fresno’s parks situation.

The taxpayer’s dollar doesn’t go very far in the hands of the city. When I drive through many of the neighborhoods built by my company, I see the degradation of the perimeter landscape, parks, and trails.

Our homeowners each pay the city close to $1,000 a year to have these amenities maintained. In the case of the Granville neighborhood at Willow and Teague avenues, we and our homeowners even replanted the shrubs and trees — only to see those die, too, because of the city’s neglect.

We have repeatedly funded cultural arts programs for underprivileged kids in our schools.  I understand the value that art brings to a community. But art without safety is a trap that creates a hopeless future for us.

Measure P supporters calculate that if the sales tax hike passes the city will reap an additional $38 million annually for parks and trails — about $1.1 billion over 30 years. But with population growth and a solid economy, that total could become $2 billion. That money would be managed by a group of private citizens appointed to a new board to oversee the expenditures.

Don’t forget, the city already spends nearly $13 million a year on parks. And here’s something that people aren’t talking about. Measure P locks in that $13 million, which in a recession could subject police and fire to funding cuts. Is that what we want?

Parks Shouldn’t Come Before Public Safety

Many members of my staff have been the victims of car theft and home burglary. When a call is made to the Fresno Police Department, the answer is some version of “We don’t have the resources to send someone out if no one was hurt.”

There was a time when the first question my home buyers would ask was whether our project was in Clovis Unified School District. That’s because they wanted their kids to get the best education.

Now, the No. 1 question is about which city the project is in because they want their family to be safe.

Remember: Public safety is government’s first obligation to residents.

We Need More Officers Now

We need more police today — not two, five or 10 years down the line.

This leaves the chief with 740 officers — or 160 officers short of what the city really needs — to patrol and respond to crimes around the clock, seven days a week, and to investigate serious crimes such as homicides and rapes.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says that his department needs at least 900 officers right now — excluding the approximately 75 grant-funded officers assigned to special duties.

Right now, the department has 815 officers and that includes the 75 hired and assigned to FAX, Fresno Unified, and the sanitation detail through outside funding.

This leaves the chief with 740 officers — or 160 officers short of what the city really needs — to patrol and respond to crimes around the clock, seven days a week, and to investigate serious crimes such as homicides and rapes. And even that 740 number is misleading because there are always officers who are injured, sick, or on vacation.

Once the department reaches 900 officers, the chief says, the department should add about 15 more officers every time Fresno grows by 10,000 residents. With that kind of staffing, Dyer says, his department can consistently reduce violent crime and theft.

911 Calls on Hold for Six Minutes or Longer

The department suffers, too, from a serious shortage of support personnel. Most critical is the dearth of dispatchers in a state-of-the-art communications center.

The state wants 95 percent of 911 calls answered in 15 seconds or less. We’re not close to meeting that standard. Sometimes, dispatchers are so overwhelmed that 911 callers are on hold “for six or seven minutes,” Dyer says.

Not only is this a dangerous situation, but it defies logic. What’s the value of having the latest communications technology if you don’t have enough staff to answer cries for help in a timely, potentially life-saving manner?

Meanwhile, the cops out in the field are saddled with old radios, guns well beyond their recommended years of use, and cars with more than 200,000 miles on them, says Damon Kurtz, president of the Fresno Police Officers Association. He estimates that the communications system linking officers to dispatch needs a $30 million rebuild.

Isn’t Crime Going Down?

Thankfully, violent and nonviolent crimes are going down in Fresno after a rough 2017 — especially for homicides, which spiked from 39 in 2016 to 56 last year.

A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found the specific factors that reduce crime. One, hiring more police officers. Their presence on the streets and in neighborhoods is a proven crime deterrent.

“So we’re reducing violent crime, but that’s compared to last year, which was high,” Dyer says. “We want to get back to where we were back in 2006, 2007 and 2008, where every year we were seeing crime reductions.”

Dyer believes, and I agree, that Assembly Bill 109, along with state sentencing reform initiatives, have created a situation in which residents are so accustomed to theft and vandalism that they often don’t report these crimes.  Why bother? The perpetrators won’t be caught. And if they are eventually hauled in, they’ll soon be right back on the streets.

“I could argue that what we have seen is increased victimization in California and decreased reporting,” Dyer says. “What makes it even more challenging today in California is the changes that have occurred in the criminal justice system with all the laws that have really weakened our ability to hold people accountable.”

Increased Police Presence Deters Crime

A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice identified the specific factors that reduce crime.

One, hiring more police officers. Their presence on the streets and in neighborhoods is a proven crime deterrent. Two, engaging in data-driven, pro-active policing.

Chief Dyer relies on data in deciding where to focus his limited resources. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the troops to implement the pro-active “community policing” that many residents desire.

 Have you seen Fresno PD’s SWAT bus? It’s a converted FAX unit first rolled into service in 1977. The joke on the SWAT team is that it must be towed to where it’s needed.

In fact, Fresno’s police funding is so bare bones that Dyer is out in the community personally raising money for the department’s needs. That might be OK for a college football coach, but it shouldn’t be required of a big-city police chief.

For example, PD’s “real-time crime center,” which passes along key information to officers on patrol, was made possible by $600,000 from an anonymous donor.

The body-worn video cameras on Fresno officers? Purchased with a $500,000 donation.

Have you seen Fresno PD’s SWAT bus? It’s a converted FAX unit first rolled into service in 1977. The joke on the SWAT team is that it must be towed to where it’s needed.

Parks Tax Is Premature

Until we address these very real issues, I am not willing to support any new taxes for parks. There’s also a critical timing issue: If this parks tax passes, our citizenry will have less of an appetite to tax themselves down the road for public safety.

Before voting on this measure ask yourself: Do I want my children or grandchildren to play in a park that is unsafe?

Instead of taxing ourselves $38 million a year for parks, we should be asking the police department exactly how much it needs to keep us safe. Then we should figure out how to properly fund the department and require an annual audit of how the new funding is used.

Before voting on this measure ask yourself: Do I want my children or grandchildren to play in a park that isn’t safe? Does having more parks in an unsafe city create a better future for us?

The promoters of this measure have good intentions. I have many friends who wholeheartedly support this measure and we’ve had rigorous debates. But their timing is off. We should address public safety first, then look at how to beautify our community.

When we are safe, I will put my heart and soul into helping Fresno develop more parks and trails that we can use to commute, recreate, and beautify our city. Stay tuned for more on this!

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer describes the effects of insufficient funding on public safety.

Correction: This commentary was changed to reflect that sales tax on cars is charged based on the buyer’s place of residence.

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