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Menlo Park: Council approves police expansion

Expects Facebook will foot the bill

The Menlo Park City Council appears to be on board with Facebook footing the bill for a new city police unit – indirectly.

The council unanimously voted Sept. 26 to make room in the 2017-18 budget for the city's police department to start taking steps to expand its coverage of the city's eastern side by hiring five police officers and one sergeant over the next 18 months. The new officers would work in a new, fourth police unit in the city's so-called M-2 area (roughly bounded by San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, U.S. 101 and Marsh Road and excluding Belle Haven).

The city is assuming that it will reach an agreement with Facebook that the company will cover the costs of the department's expansion, but will do so by contributing to the city's unrestricted general fund. That means that the money will be, at least in name, up to the city to decide how to spend. That said, the city's administrative services director, Nick Pegueros, says the council should create a separate fund within the general fund so that Facebook's dollars will, in effect, still be earmarked for their proposed use.

The city's police department doesn't want to wait for Facebook's money to come in, though, because recruiting new officers can take up to 18 months, so it made the request to the council directly.

Earlier this year, Facebook offered $11.2 million over five years to fund the creation of a new, fourth police unit on the city's eastern side, made up of five officers and a sergeant, and the costs of requisite equipment. If, after five years, the area hasn't begun to bring in the expected property taxes to sustain the new police unit, Facebook has offered a two-year extension of the funding.

The new unit will change police beat boundaries on the city's eastern side, so that there will be one unit covering Belle Haven, Menlo Park businesses west of the Dumbarton rail line and along O'Brien Drive, and, eventually, Facebook's proposed Willow Campus, while the new unit boundaries will mirror the city's so-called "M-2" area, covering the remaining Menlo Park territory closest to the Bay.

The city's other two units cover the city from Highway 280 to El Camino Real and El Camino Real to Highway 101.

Criticism

Facebook's offer triggered alarm and criticism by some. People expressed concern about the ethics of a private company funding police services in the area in which it operates and suspected that the company would garner special or preferential treatment from police.

Some critics, like local activist Kyra Brown, expressed concern that the move will increase policing in the Belle Haven neighborhood, since the neighborhood (plus a handful of businesses across Willow Road) will have a dedicated unit.

She links increased policing to threats of gentrification and fears of a "tech takeover" of communities like Belle Haven and East Palo Alto, whose demographics differ from much of the rest of the Peninsula in that a higher proportion of residents are lower-income, black or Latino.

"My fear is that the Menlo Park City Council will not take the link between gentrification and criminalization seriously," she wrote in a blog post in April.

In a May City Council meeting, East Palo Alto activist JT Faraji said, "When you have that many more police patrolling the area and no increase in crime, there is a tendency for over-policing and that can sometimes result in racial profiling," he said. He noted he was concerned about a private corporation funding public officials. "Instead of being beholden to the public, public servants will be beholden to a private company," he said.

The optics of the move to accept Facebook funding might appear inappropriate to some, acknowledged Menlo Park Police Commander William Dixon in a staff report.

"To have a company fund a public entity, specifically law enforcement can draw skepticism with concerns of preferential treatment," he wrote.

"However," he added, "when considering this type of partnership, one must determine if the relationship is designed with the end result being a better, safer community for everyone and not just the involved parties."

Making up for lost sales tax?

Councilwoman Kirsten Keith in previous council discussions said other cities across the state are struggling to recoup costs from tech companies that don't generate traditional sales taxes to fund city services. She said she saw Facebook's contribution as a voluntary in-lieu payment to make up for the lack of sales taxes generated.

Police Chief Bob Jonsen told the City Council he hopes expanding the police force on the city's eastern side will improve traffic enforcement and response times to service calls.

Chief Jonsen also pointed out that the city has already accepted Facebook funding. In 2014, the company paid for a new Belle Haven substation on Hamilton Avenue, and funded the creation of a new police position, which has been staffed by Officer Mary Ferguson. The position focuses on schools, truancy, gang deterrence and on developing safety plans for education facilities and local businesses.

Chief Jonsen added that Facebook officials have made no requests for special treatment or additional police services.

Expansion needed?

Menlo Park currently has 48 sworn officers for its service population of 43,790. The police department's "service population" is calculated by adding the number of residents (33,273 in 2015) to one-third of the number of employees (31,552 in 2015) in the city.

Menlo Park is expected to grow substantially in the coming years, with growth focused in the parts of the city closest to the Bay. The city's recently completed general plan update lays out provisions for up to 4,500 new residential units, 400 hotel rooms, 9,900 new employees and 14,150 new residents, or a service population increase of 17,450 to a total of 61,102 across Menlo Park.

To keep the current ratio of one officer per 912 people under the city's "service population" formula, that means there may be a call for as many as 17 new officers between now and whenever that projected growth actually happens – likely between now and 2040.

By 2022, the service population is expected to grow to 50,290 people, which the police department says calls for 55 sworn officers, seven more than there are now.

In addition, 12 of the city's current sworn police staff, including the chief, a commander, five sergeants, two corporals and three officers, will be eligible to retire in five years, according to the staff report, meaning the police force will need to make some new hires in coming years regardless of the new unit.

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