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.
Pomona dissolved its own fire department in the 1990s and county firefighters now protect the city. International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1014 President Dave Gillotte raised eyebrows when he posted a message on the union local's Web site demanding that any cuts in the county fire services budget for Pomona "must be tied proportionally" to cuts in the city's police budget.
"Why would it be any of his interest as to what type of law enforcement services are provided in Pomona?" asks officer Glenn Stires, a Pomona native and 21-year street veteran. "It really is apples and oranges."
Stires, speaking as a member of the police union, sees Baca's boasting about bringing to Pomona big savings and big increases in deputies on the streets as similar to a predatory mortgage broker during the housing bubble. "They know the cost is going to jump up in the following years, but they disguise it," he says. "They just want the buyer to sign."
But Stires says it's the City Council that's left officers feeling stabbed in the back.
"We clearly see the loyalties of the City Council," says Stires. "And it's not with lifelong city employees or city residents. It's not with a department whose officers have given mind, body and, in one officer's case, soul to the city. We've been betrayed."
Yet Gillotte says the firefighters' union will fight hard against efforts by police and community groups who want the city to spend less on county fire services in order to spare the city police force from additional cuts.
"If the city of Pomona wants to keep Pomona P.D. — and their [union] obviously is supporting that, to keep a small, very expensive police department — as the locally controlled police department, then that's fine. That's up to the citizens and elected officials," Gillotte says. "But we will not allow money to be taken out of the fire end of things, [to satisfy demands] that 'if only fire will give, we could keep our P.D.' "
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Meanwhile, signs that the Pomona City Council is turning against its police force aren't subtle.
Last week no sitting council member was among the 180 people who gathered to honor seven retiring Pomona cops who share about 200 years of service between them. Former City Councilman George Hunter joked to the crowd that the county fire department must have had an event the same night.
Dark humor and rueful chuckles aside, perhaps the last laugh has to go to the homeboys of 12th Street, who, on some level, must marvel that the Pomona City Council is toying with the gang's pipe dream of Pomona PD vanishing from the streets.