To find an answer to the question du jour in Manteca politics regarding what will happen to Police Chief Jodie Estarziau you may have to venture out onto the streets.
Estarziau was placed on administrative leave Wednesday evening by Acting City Manager Miranda Lutzow. That happened after the city received a 5-page letter outlining complaints about Estarziau that originated within the police department.
It is likely some of the listed transgressions are without merit. That may not necessarily be true about all of them.
But at this point what matters has less to do with personnel matters and questions about department morale than it does about how the Manteca Police Department is perceived in the community.
That is because as an at will employee Estarziau can’t escape the cold reality of politics.
Lutzow is her boss. The City Council is Lutzow’s boss. Manteca residents that are eligible and who bother to vote elect the City Council.
The City Council has been getting more than an earful over the past year or so from Manteca residents. Some of it is about the perception that the homeless in a growing number of situations appear to be immune from laws that govern everyone’s conduct and not simply those carved out by the 9th District Court of Appeals as not applying given the homeless can’t possibly not violate them due to the simple fact they are homeless.
The other is the general sense Manteca has become the traffic lawless equivalent of the Old West towns of Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone combined.
People aren’t manning the ramparts screaming about police misconduct and such. There might be some questionable incidents but nothing has even reached the blip-on-a-radar stage. For the most part, it is safe to say Manteca residents respect and appreciate the job the police do. Simply put there is no there there.
That, however, is not the case with the homeless and traffic.
One would need to be tone deaf not to recognize the growing frustration of the majority of council members over the past 10 months when it comes to traffic enforcement and quality of life crimes that happen to be committed by the homeless. The frustrations weren’t being pulled from thin air. The council members get hammered on those two topics day in and day out.
They got the message. Lutzow has surely gotten the message relayed by council members.
The City Council collectively establishes polices for the city while the city manager on a day-to-day basis oversees the running of the city. The council directly hires only two people — the city attorney and the city manager. The city manager hires department heads who hire everyone else. The city manager’s job, as Lutzow aptly puts it, “is to carry out the vision of the council.”
It has been abundantly clear that speeding, red light running, rolling through stop signs, overtly aggressive driving, and the virtual collapse of pedestrian safety is reaching epidemic proportions from where many Manteca residents stand. Yes the department has added a traffic officer, and yes, another one is coming on board in January. But that brings Manteca only to five officers dedicated to traffic enforcement. That’s the same level Manteca had 11 years and some 18,000 residents less than now before budget cuts decimated the traffic enforcement unit.
This is where the Estarziau as scapegoat for the lack of safer streets in terms of how people drive gets a little fuzzy. The council individually and collectively has called for more dedicated officers for traffic enforcement. Mayor Ben Cantu has even gone as far as saying we need 9 new positions added in the next three or so years. The council also controls the purse strings and could easily have designated funding at budget time but opted not to do so. There is a simple and undeniable truth that there is other pressing municipal needs and wants vying for limited dollars. There are only five possible routes forward to secure a significant bump in dedicated traffic officers:
1. Cut other things out of the budget.
2. Find a way to increase taxes.
3. Shift officers from other duties that would mean a reduction in patrol, gang unit, or detective personnel.
4. Change the city reserve policy so that money flowing in from basic property tax that was once diverted to the redevelopment agency to specifically fund reoccurring expenses such as more police officers to write tickets, more street workers to maintain streets plus fix sidewalks, or more staff to cut park grass.
u5. Spend down the overall reserves to increase the commitment to hire more staff and in doing so send Manteca back into the rabbit hole of structured budget deficits that are basically gambling by spending more money than the city takes in during the course of a year. Start doing this long enough and you’re on the road to 1985 with a $1,000 City of Manteca reserve, empty fire stations you can’t afford to staff or equip, and buying “new” patrol cars in the form or used CHP vehicles with 92,000 miles on them.
Estarziau hasn’t helped her cause on this one. She has said she prefers more officers to deploy as she sees fit based on the needs as a professional that she views the city needs for policing that could do traffic enforcement when available and as opposed to using dedicated traffic officers. Some council members did not warmly receive the answer.
There also hasn’t really been an effort to step up targeted enforcement with deliberate overtime that would require asking for more money or finding money within the department budget that would not create a reoccur expense.
The homeless issue is much trickier. It doesn’t help however when citizens are essentially told the hands of police are tied in almost all things homeless related because of court decisions or settlement agreements. It appears to some— including several council members — as if the department is using both as cover not to work at ways at addressing mounting quality of life issues. Citizens have been left with the impression the police aren’t willing or interested in wasting their time on minor crimes that involve the homeless.
Dealing with mundane homeless issues may not be what officers signed up for and it doesn’t have easy solutions.
There was a time, though, when the department was driven to work with the community to make their homes and persons less susceptible to crime. It was done through aggressive education and working with them to make it less likely for their property to provide cover for criminals intent on breaking into their homes whether it was altering landscaping, installing vandal proof lighting, or other passive crime reduction measures.
Working with people to homeless-proof their property and to make Manteca less appealing to be on the streets and essentially make it harder to resist MPD efforts to encourage the homeless to accept help to get off the streets is something that really hasn’t been explored.
The most effective way at stopping illegal panhandling for example at freeway ramps is having a targeted “sting operation” where those ignoring posted signs are slapped with significant fines for doing so. The reaction of those ticketed wouldn’t be pleasant but word gets around. And given most of the people giving money to the homeless where it is illegal to do so for safety and traffic flow reasons are Manteca residents, the ineffectiveness of panhandling where it is illegal to do so will quickly register with the homeless and others that engage in such behavior.
Estarziau has not made herself a high profile public figure on either the homeless or traffic fronts leaving subordinates to reach out to frustrated citizens either in group settings or even one-on-one.
Back when the City Council in the 1980s moved to dismiss Leonard Taylor as police chief for perceived performance related issues, Taylor’s high profile in the community ended up costing three council members their seats in a recall election.
The police chief — in the estimation that a majority of the council members have made clear — is not high profile enough when it comes to either traffic enforcement or homeless issues.
At the end of the day if the council majority makes it clear they are not just unhappy but growing restless with the way things are going based on community input and their own observations, a city manager that is doing their job will put 2 and 2 together and show the police chief the door.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.