By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Six years ago the Pomona Police Department rolled through this hard-luck city in a fierce display of force, unleashed by a City Council that was seemingly intent on sending a message to its largest and most venerable street gang.
In late April of 2004, California Highway Patrolman Thomas Steiner was gunned down as he walked out of the Los Angeles County Court in Pomona, brazenly murdered by a thug looking to make his bones with 12th Street, a gang on Pomona's southside that dates to the 1940s.
Steiner's murder sent his 16-year-old admitted killer, Valentino Mitchell Arenas, off to the joint with no hope of anything more than state gruel and prison sex for the rest of his life.
It also sent the City of Pomona on the war path.
After Steiner's killing, more than 450 lawmen from agencies all over Southern California fanned out across the city with Pomona P.D. at the spear-point of what remains the biggest municipal ass-kicking ever handed to the homeboys of 12th Street. It was a city-provided colonoscopy that had even the toughest veteranos wincing.
Civic leaders and police brass vowed to crush the gang.
So there's more than a little irony in that six years later, with 12th Street predators still prowling the barrio, it's the local police that now face an existential threat — not from the gang but from the suits in Pomona City Hall.
A grim budget deficit has led the Pomona City Council from cutting its century-old force down in size to considering dissolving it entirely, and hiring the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to patrol the streets.
The economically battered city remains the home of 18 active street gangs with approximately 2,000 members, more than 400 of whom claim membership in 12th Street, according to police gang detectives.
The City Council's decision in April to ask the Sheriff's Department to provide an estimate of the costs of its services touched off a firestorm that swept from rank and file cops and across Pomona's neighborhoods. As yard signs declaring "Our Safety, Our Police" began sprouting, the Pomona Police Officer's Association condemned the move as a brazen betrayal.
Rob Baker, president of the police association, says that City Manager Linda Lowry has taken not just a hard line in budget negotiations, but an insulting and provocative tone. "Morale is at the lowest point that I have seen in my 22 years of service. Morale is lower than when [Pomona Police Officer Daniel Fraembs] was murdered," Baker says. "I can tell you my morale started to drop when in negotiations with the city, back on March 23, in our very first session, Lowry made the statement that 'concern for city employees was not a luxury she could afford.' "
While there has been speculation that the council is merely posturing as part of budget negotiations, Baker says the department's existence is being challenged.
"It will be one less collective bargaining group that they have to contend with in the city," Baker says. "It is a real threat to eliminate the police department."
Calls and emails to Lowry's office seeking comment were not returned.
Baker says police have more than shared the pain from the city's financial bleed-out. Numbering more than 200 a few years ago, the force is down to 173 sworn officers and faces layoffs of possibly a dozen more. He says its 2011 budget line of $39 million is likely to be slashed down to around $35 million in another round of cuts.
The Sheriff's Department is insisting it didn't shop the city its services, and is merely responding to the council's request for an initial feasibility study.
"What's in it for us? What we are doing is responding to the City of Pomona's request," says Capt. Bruce Fogarty of the Contract Law Enforcement Bureau. The sheriff's first report will be analyzed by an independent contractor and, if approved, followed by a far more detailed plan for services.
Pomona voters would have the final say on the November ballot.
While legendary Sheriff Sherman Block — who still garnered more than a third of the vote on the ballot in 1998 even though he had recently died — was said to have long desired the trifecta of adding Pomona, Pasadena and Long Beach to his department's "contract cities," Fogarty insists that Block's successor, Lee Baca, isn't interested in empire.
"I don't have anything from [Baca] that we want to expand the department this way," Fogarty says. "This is simply: We get the request and we do our best at giving them an estimate and leave it in the city's hands."
Yet the sheriff's initial report, delivered several days ago, contained a dubious boast: that Baca can significantly bump the number of officers while significantly reducing costs. Baca says he can save Pomona nearly 10 percent while increasing sworn personnel by 11 percent.
Though the Sheriff's Department may not be directly campaigning to snag Pomona, the city's cops accuse the L.A. County Fire Department of meddling, using political back channels to push for the city to dump its own police force for its own selfish reasons. The county firefighters deny it — but there's some evidence against them.