Staying Strong Through Crisis

PORAC Member Spotlight

San Bernardino Police Officers Association

Incorporated in 1953, the same year as PORAC, the San Bernardino Police Officers Association (SBPOA) represents almost 200 members of the San Bernardino Police Department in the ranks of officer, detective and sergeant. Originally formed as a benevolent and social organization, the association evolved over time and took on officer representation and advocacy roles, mirroring the overall police labor movement in California in the 1960s and 1970s. The SBPOA even boasts a former PORAC President, San Bernardino Police Officer Bob Van Der Linda, who served from 1962 to 1963.

Part of the SBPOA’s advocacy for its officers has included being vigilant and politically active at the municipal level for decades, including repeatedly defending Section 186 of the San Bernardino City Charter, which guarantees that police and firefighters be paid the average salary of 10 other cities with populations of 100,000 to 250,000. This amendment has long maintained the stability of the police force by ensuring that salaries remained competitive regardless of city politics and budget fluctuations.

While it has provided steadfast leadership to its members for decades, the SBPOA has shown its true mettle over the last several years, which have been full of unprecedented difficulties.

In 2012, after being particularly hard hit by the recession and foreclosure crisis that decimated the region’s tax base, the city of San Bernardino found itself with a $50 million budget shortfall and unfunded pension liabilities — and became the state’s third city to declare bankruptcy. Homicides shot up 50% within the same year, while the number of officers on the Department dropped from 340 in 2012 to 260 at the end of 2015. Helping to exacerbate this perfect storm was state prison realignment, which, starting in late 2011, dumped several thousand criminals back into the county’s prison system, with many of them being released back into the community.

In addition to all of these factors already taking a toll on morale, the San Bernardino P.D. was faced with internal tragedies: Officer Shaun Jarvis was killed in May 2014 in an off-duty motorcycle accident, Officer Gabriel Garcia was critically injured during a shootout in August 2014 and Officer Bryce Hanes was killed by a drunk driver in November 2015.

Through it all, SBPOA supported its members, stayed on top of the issues, took its case to the residents, presented solutions to city management and, step by step, proved itself to be an invaluable partner in leading the city and Department out of crisis.

“During all of the above-mentioned events, our POA Board members came together and worked through the problems as a team,” says SBPD Sergeant Steve Turner, who guided the SBPOA during the turmoil as President from 2011 to 2015 and currently serves as Treasurer. “One of the first things I did when I became President was change the culture of the POA Board of Directors. I worked diligently to make each Board member feel a part of the team. Once we jelled, we dealt with each event as a unit.”

Making Its Case With the Public

Putting faith in its members and the community and making direct communications a priority served the SBPOA well in achieving its goals. The association fully utilized its website and leveraged social media to its advantage. “Our Facebook page has been used regularly for the dissemination of public information or notification, and our website has a public page that permits us to reach out to citizens, businesses and civic leaders with news and information. We also utilize a Twitter account,” says the current President, SBPD Detective Steve Desrochers, who served as Patrol Representative from 2011 to 2014 and Vice President in 2015. “We also own the site, which during the height of the crisis featured information related to the bankruptcy, articles, and election and campaign information.”

These ongoing public information and outreach efforts paid off in August 2015, when the SBPOA announced a five-year police contract with the City that was also overwhelmingly supported by the rank and file. With a focus on both keeping experienced officers and maintaining recruitment, the agreement was a good first step toward rebuilding the agency and helping to reduce crime and violence.

“A bankruptcy is probably one of the most difficult things for an association to go through,” Turner says, “mainly because the bankruptcy automatically places the association into a creditor group, which allows the City to change the MOU. Being able to negotiate a contract with the City during the bankruptcy has to be one of our greatest accomplishments. While we took a haircut in some areas, we were able to negotiate a contract that included enhancements for our members.”

“Though we did not score a win on every point, we were able to bring back something positive for the entire membership,” concurs Desrochers. “Everyone seemed to want something. Through all of that (and likely because of that) our negotiations team was able to produce a positive contract that impacted the entire membership, and probably the whole organization.”

Desrochers credits Turner with successfully navigating the negotiations and rough times. “During a period that is arguably the darkest time in our history, Steve kept his cool, level-headed demeanor and dealt daily with civic leaders, Department management, a bunch of attorneys who all seemed to be in charge of various areas of the bankruptcy, the prospect of being contracted out to the SBSD, and a number of line-of-duty incidents,” he says.

Support From the Top

SBPOA leadership points out that PORAC was highly visible and ready to provide assistance from the moment that San Bernardino’s financial troubles started to hit the news. “We never asked, but President Durant, on more than one occasion, contacted me and offered his support,” says Turner.

Desrochers says the SBPOA values its relationship with PORAC not only for training, insurance benefits and LDF coverage, but also for its ongoing moral support and advocacy. “What we’ve managed to do on a local level would likely not have been as effective if PORAC was not so active at the state level and providing us information about their activities to pass on to our members,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to know that an organization of PORAC’s caliber is not ‘too big’ to remember the individual organization during times of tumult and that they are aware and there to help, if needed. I appreciate President Durant keeping in touch with us throughout the process.”

Maintaining Priorities

The association has always been a big contributor to community causes and is proud of the fact that it has kept up its philanthropic and civic efforts under duress. “That stuff doesn’t stop just because we face a bit of adversity,” says Desrochers. “We still conduct fundraisers for our San Bernardino Police Officers Foundation, we still held a candidate forum at CSUSB to inform the public about the various positions of the council candidates, we still gave out scholarships (two per year), we continued to help those less able families with holiday baskets, we assisted with the coordination of a Thanksgiving potluck for our members, and so many other things.”

The POA also supports youth football and baseball, distributes gifts during the Christmas season, and on April 9 will hold its first annual Heroes Ride to benefit fallen and injured SBPD officers.

Inland Regional Center Tragedy Puts Spotlight on Heroes

On December 2, 2015, the entire world held its breath and watched live as the SBPD, in close cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, tracked down the ruthless terrorists who killed 14 people and seriously injured 22 more at the Inland Regional Center. The horrific event rocked the community that had already been through so much in recent years.

Despite the terrible loss of life, there have been some bright spots in the aftermath. The officers involved were widely praised for their heroic response to the shooting, and the community has pulled together and expressed tremendous appreciation for its dedicated police forces.

“They responded in the most professional, courageous manner that could be expected,” says Turner. “I’m very proud of all of the officers who responded and took down the terrorists. We have been saying for several years that safety is our top priority. I think we proved that at the IRC event. The citizens are extremely supportive. It seemed that every day for a whole month we had citizens and businesses providing food, snacks, etc., as a thank-you.”

Morale has increased as a result. “All indications are that our public believes that their community is very well protected, and that the SBPD is capable of fitting the changing circumstances that we face on a daily basis,” says Turner.

“I think we each learned a lot about ourselves and our agency as a result of this unfortunate incident,” says Desrochers. “Everyone was forced to dig deep, not only on that day, but for many days after the initial incident. It’s difficult enough to live and work through a municipal bankruptcy. It brings with it deep concerns about the future, and the ability to provide for one’s family. The constant stream of news about the process can really deflate one’s psyche. When a major incident like the IRC happens, you can see everyone putting all of that aside and returning to their very core.”

Looking Forward, Association Lessons

As bankruptcy proceedings are still ongoing (with a federal judge rejecting a proposal in December and another draft to be reviewed in March), San Bernardino’s fate and potential city charter changes are still to be decided. The SBPOA remains focused on public safety and will vigilantly fight to regain proper staffing levels, says Turner, who is hopeful that the positive publicity after the IRC incident will increase recruitment.

Having now experienced city bankruptcy, decimation of its department, line-of-duty incidents and a terrorism event, the SBPOA has some important advice for other associations: Establish a close relationship with your community, keep communications open and stay politically involved.

“I am now a total believer in using social media to improve your citizens’ knowledge of what your association believes to be important and why,” says Desrochers. “If you don’t have a Facebook page or Twitter, find a way to get that up and running.”

“Maintain a strong political action committee that seeks out any and all pertinent information about local candidates,” he adds. “The politicians will not volunteer information; you have to pull it from them and analyze it in order to make an informed recommendation to your citizens. This is key, because if you build your name recognition or ‘brand’ within your community, they will put some serious consideration into your political recommendations, because they trust you. Do the work and be vocal, and use social media to spread your opinions far and wide.”