The fight over the future of the Hermosa Beach Police Department spilled into City Council Chambers Tuesday night when police officers and their allies put public pressure on the City Council over contract negotiations that have stretched on since April.

The Hermosa Beach Police Officers Association has claimed on social media, fliers, newspaper ads and at the meeting that “staffing levels are dangerously low,” which will lead to more crime, slower response times and decreased community interaction.

But that's an assertion the city disputes.

“We have sufficient police staffing to protect public safety,” said City Manager Suja Lowenthal at the meeting.

“I'm concerned that as a direct result of our staffing crises, the citizens and businesses of Hermosa will be facing an increase in response time to their calls,” said Sgt. Joel Poelstra said.

According to Mayor Mary Campbell, the city has been in negotiations with the HBPOA since April. They have held 16 meetings at the bargaining table as well as individual meetings.

The city “provided its last, best and final offer on December 4,” said Campbell at the meeting. That offer included a 13 percent increase over the next three years.

The POA rejected that offer, countering with a 30 percent increase—a 10 percent increase each year over the next three years.

“This is in excess of what they originally sought,” Campbell said. “All of us at the city are committed to public safety, of course and to our local police officers and all of our city employees.”

In negotiating a three-year contract with the city, the POA first proposed a total compensation bump of 18%. The city countered on May 16, with a 6% total. On May 30, the POA proposed a total 16% percent raise. On June 18, the city countered with a 7.5% total raise. On June 24, the POA's proposal called for a total 12% raise. The city countered that Aug. 28, with a proposal for a 9% increase.

That's when the POA increased their demand, asking in October for a 30% increase over the three-year contract. On Dec. 5, the city's final offer was a pay increase of 13 percent over three years: 5 percent the first year, followed by 4 percent in 2020 and 2021.

The city had also offered other “enhancements' including retention bonuses of $7,500 for officers in their early years with the city and recruiting bonuses of up to $10,000 for “laterals,” or officers from other departments that will join the Hermosa Beach Police Department. The city also offered new tuition reimbursement and bonus pay for working overnight and as watch commander.

Lowenthal said more than 41 percent of the city's $43 million budget is dedicated to police with an additional 16 percent earmarked for fire protection.

“We are a small city with finite resources,” Lowenthal said.

Sgt. Mick Gaglia, with Hermosa Beach police for more than 20 years, said finding qualified police applicants is a “national epidemic.” And, he said, Hermosa Beach is unable to attract or retain the most qualified personnel.

According to Transparent California website, in 2018 most Manhattan Beach officers make more than $100,000 in regular pay and some make between $50,000 to $80,000 a year.

According to the Hermosa Beach, under the last agreement, its police officers base pay ranged from $80,412 to $84,744 a year, while a sergeant's pay is $92,280 to $106,836 a year.

Gaglia added these agencies are “pouching officers” from Hermosa Beach and are “happy to take our trained personnel.”

“We're struggling to attract new police officers and we are struggling to retain our current staffing,” Gaglia said. “As the sergeant in charge of recruiting new police officers, I have worked tirelessly to be creative and find quality people to do a job that most people could not or would not do.”

In a Dec. 13 press release, Det. Brian Smyth, a union representative, claimed if they keep losing officers, HBPD could be taken over by the County's Sheriff's Department based out its substation in Lawndale.

Campbell said Tuesday, “(Discussion) has not included looking for a substitute police force such as the Sheriff's Department.”

At Tuesday's meeting, Smyth said the police department is authorized to have 38 officers, but is now operating with 25. With acting police chief Milton McKinnon, following the recent retirement of Chief Sharon Papa, retiring at the end of the year and two more officers leaving for Gardena and Manhattan Beach, they will soon be down to 22 officers. Also, four more officers currently have applications out with other police agencies and 14 officers will be of retirement ages within the next two and a half years.

“This is dangerous,” Smyth said. “No officer should have to search a residence, contact a mentally unstable person or respond to a domestic violence call alone, ever. Yet that's what we're being asked to do. This puts the community and the officers at risk.”

Poelstra said, “I have only two patrol officers on every shift I supervise now which causes me two concerns. First, calls for service are holding as they are tied up on other incidents. Second, I see criminals from outside our city taking advantage of how thin we are spread, something I fear will only continue to grow.”

Residents and business owners also expressed their concerns, with one resident saying officers are “undervalued, underpaid and under-appreciated.”

“We can not lose our police officers,” said Douglas Robins. “We can't have officers training here and going to other cities. You just have to bite the bullet and come up with whatever it is that's going to retain and attract police officers for Hermosa Beach. I'm not here against the city and for the police, I'm here for Hermosa Beach.”

Resident and restaurant owner Mike Sribney said “It almost scares me on how bad things really are within the police department.”

In the Dec. 13 press release, POA President Nick Garcia wrote “With violent crime, aggravated assault, theft and sex crime up significantly this year in Hermosa Beach, the threats are real.”

Lowenthal countered Tuesday that crime has decreased in Hermosa Beach over the past 10 years.

With low crime numbers in the city, Lowenthal said any spike in crime could cause a large percentage increase in that category.

One example is “sex crimes” to date from September of 2018 to September of 2019. There were 2 sex crimes reported in 2018 compared to 7 in 2019. Also, robbery increased from four in 2018 to seven in 2019.

Contact this reporter at mhixon@tbrnews.com or on Twitter @michaeljhixon.com.

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