Patrolling the "uncity"
02:42 PM PDT on Monday, April 9, 2007
By KIMBERLY TRONE
Supervisors in Riverside and Sacramento counties are considering deploying sheriff's deputies to enforce traffic in urbanized unincorporated communities if the California Highway Patrol can't increase its coverage in those areas.
Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione and Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson want state lawmakers to give high-growth counties with less than 3 million people the option to authorize and fund traffic deputies.
The sheriff's department investigates crimes in unincorporated communities but the CHP has been mainly responsible for traffic enforcement outside cities' limits since 1929, when the agency was established.
Deputies will cite flagrant traffic violations such as speeding, red-light running and driving under the influence, but traffic enforcement is not a day-to-day priority, Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle said.
"Our issue has everything to do with going from a rural to an urbanized county," Doyle said. "We are not looking to take over the CHP's mission, but we want to assist our citizens. We have schools popping up everywhere and traffic problems popping up everywhere."
An existing state law allows counties with populations of more than 3 million to authorize and use money from their general funds to reimburse their sheriffs' departments for enforcing traffic laws on county roads.
More than a quarter of Riverside County's two million residents live in unincorporated communities. Some, such as Jurupa Valley, Eastvale, Menifee and Thousand Palms are as densely packed with people and cars as a thriving city.
Tavaglione said he would prefer to have the CHP provide dedicated traffic officers in the urbanized unincorporated communities where speed, collisions and other moving violations are predominant.
Tavaglione, whose district includes the Jurupa Valley and Eastvale, plans to meet later this month with CHP officials to discuss increased traffic enforcement in urbanized county areas.
Sacramento County, at one point, was paying overtime for CHP officers to increase enforcement. Supervisors there have regularly sought solutions for enhanced coverage only to see that coverage wane over time, Dickinson said.
"The bottom line is the CHP doesn't have enough bodies to put on the streets," he said. Sacramento County supervisors are asking a state lawmaker to introduce a bill on their behalf.
Both county supervisors said they are not unhappy with the CHP and do not want the agency to go away, but recognize that enforcement in some areas may be more than it can hope to successfully accomplish.
Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has agreed to study the issue but has not decided whether to push for a change in the law to accommodate the counties' concerns, his spokesman Jim Evans said.
Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, a former CHP commander, predicted there would be "a very politically charged discussion," as there has been in the past when similar issues surfaced in Sacramento.
Counties say they are willing to foot the bill for enhanced traffic enforcement now but they might eventually decide to demand a share of state funding now used to pay for CHP services, Benoit said.
"It's about allocation of resources. The patrol is pretty proud of the job they do and if they have fallen down some place, they try to work it out," Benoit said, calling the agency's patrol size "woefully behind."
Rick Mattos, president of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, said the solution is for the CHP to increase its staffing. The agency has about 7,000 sworn officers statewide to patrol freeways and enforce traffic.
Few positions had been added to the agency since the 1960s. Last year, state lawmakers added 240 positions. This year's budget includes 120 more, Mattos said.
"I have heard of these ideas before. They are nice ideas," Mattos said of deputies doing traffic enforcement. "The answer is not to stretch the sheriff's department thin."
San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod said he is satisfied with CHP services and sees no need to put deputies to work enforcing traffic.
The law enforcement situation in unincorporated areas can be confusing, especially for newcomers.
Jane Anderson, a member of the Eastvale Community Committee, said she often educates new residents in her unincorporated community north of Norco about who does what.
"The biggest problem is most people here don't understand that traffic is handled by the CHP and any other thing to do with law enforcement is handled by the sheriff," Anderson said.
She said it would be nice if there were enough deputies to take on the responsibility of traffic enforcement. However, Anderson said neither the CHP nor the sheriff has the personnel to do all the jobs that need to be done.
"Until there are specific numbers of people to handle all those things, you're taking one person away from doing one thing to do something else," Anderson said.
Staff writer Duane Gang contributed to this report.
Reach Kimberly Trone at 951-368-9456 or ktrone@PE.com