Commanding Presence

Business, safety and the future of the Sac PD

Back Q&A Jun 1, 2013 By Rich Ehisen

Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers, Jr.

Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers, Jr.

Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. is still fairly new to his position, but he is hardly fresh to Sacramento or law enforcement. Born and raised here, the Encina High School and Sacramento State graduate is a second-generation cop with 29 years on the force. In that time, Somers has held numerous command positions within the department, from street patrols to the SWAT team. We sat down with him recently to discuss the job and the intersection of the police force and the business community.

Comstock’s: You are from a police family. How long was your dad with Sacramento PD?
Somers: 30 years.

Comstock’s: So going into public safety wasn’t really a question, right?
Somers: Sometimes people are born into it. It kind of looks like I was, but I didn’t know this was what I wanted to be when I was younger. It’s funny how it came back to this, and once I kind of did it, it was fun. 

Comstock’s: Your predecessor, Chief Rick Braziel, has said policing is very similar to business, with customers and clientele. Do you agree with that?
Somers: Well, we do have customers — the people who call us and need a service every day. The one difference between us and a real business is that we don’t turn a profit. We can’t look at the ledger and say, ‘We made money today.’ What we can measure is, ‘Did we reduce crime, or was somebody satisfied with the service we supplied to them?’ But like with other businesses, our customers also have options. You can hire private security to help police your neighborhood. Some people supplement their communities because they want additional service, or it might be a failure on our part. It might be that we’re not supplying enough service. That’s something we look at very closely to see, maybe, where we’ve dropped [and why] they felt they needed to supplement what we were providing.

Comstock’s: How do you see the relationship between the Sacramento Police Department and the business community?
Somers: I think it’s very good and robust. We’ve spent a lot of years really trying to grow that relationship, and we have a lot of attachments with the business corridors. We attend their regular meetings, and we’re consulted on a lot of issues business owners have. We also have direct liaisons with them so that when they have a particular issue, they can cut through the bureaucracy and get the answer they need. We always try to be proactive. For instance, we have programs where business owners can learn from us how to better secure their business. We use a lot of concepts called ‘crime prevention through environmental design,’ which can be as simple as fencing. We share info on creating barriers and defensible space, installing proper lighting, making sure you set your business up so that you’re not going to be an easy target. Best of all, we come in and do the evaluation, and it doesn’t cost you anything.

Comstock’s: What more can businesses do to help you help them?
Somers: Something that really helps us is for them to come together with a singular message of things that we need to work on for the broader area as opposed to each one of their individual issues. Look at the Midtown Association or the Downtown Partnership. As opposed to having 25 businesses telling us their individual needs, they get together, they have an executive director and they can prioritize their needs. That’s huge for us.

Comstock’s: Downtown has had some high-profile problems in recent years. Let’s face it, bars and nightclubs present a different kind of problem for you than a hardware store. How important is it for those specific businesses to figure out ways to help you?
Somers: First, I would challenge you to find any other community with a similarly vibrant nightlife that doesn’t have some of these issues. That said, it’s very important. Many in that area have come together and hired some of our extra officers to do specific patrol in certain areas at particular times. But they also do other things. They have radios at all the different bars, so if you get one knucklehead in a particular bar, he can’t just walk two businesses down and become a knucklehead there, too. They can alert one another and our officers, so if they have a problem we can maybe go look for that person ahead of time, and we can get that person out of there. Overall, I think the downtown bars have been very proactive in dealing with these things when they come up.

Comstock’s: You’ve said you want to increase diversity in Sac PD. What is the plan for doing that?
Somers: We have a variety of plans, but the very first thing you have to do is to be able to hire. That means we need to have the money to actually hire new officers. No. 2, we need a very diverse candidate pool because it takes about 100 applicants to get even three people in the pipeline that we can hire. To get that, we already do a lot of the traditional stuff — job fairs and outreach in colleges — which is important because we require 60 college units to be an officer in the Sacramento Police Department. We target as diverse a group as we can, and in some areas we do OK and in some areas we don’t do so well. So going forward, we’re trying to break down some barriers. I have a program called Cops and Clergy we’re using as an intervention program, but which is also getting us into some of the diverse neighborhoods where the perception of us isn’t as good as it should be or can be. We’re partnering with the churches and developing relationships that are about action, not just words. Clergy has a different perception of cops, of what we’re really trying to do, and they can take us inside and introduce us as their friend, someone their community can trust. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t trust me, why would you want to work for me?

Comstock’s: I understand Measure U is going to give you some money and that you’re hoping to bring in 50 officers. Is that correct?
Somers: Once I get the hard-line numbers and know exactly what monies are coming our way, it will give me a good idea of exactly how many we’re going to be able to hire. We’re having an academy in July that we’re trying to get 40 officers into. As I said, you have to put a lot of people through, and the process here is not real simple. It’s a written test, an oral test, a physical test, a background process, medical test, psychological test. On top of that, you have six months with the academy and then six months on the street in field training. So, it’s about an 18-month process to get a body here. So, if I graduate 40 officers out of the academy, I’ll be very happy. We have an attrition rate out of that, so you’re probably looking at somewhere in the 30s. If I can also attract quality officers from other agencies, then I can fill in the blanks from there.

Comstock’s: Will you be able to return to your “POP” plan, the problem-oriented policing program that has shown to be effective in the past?
Somers:  When I ran the south command, community members would tell me, ‘I know my POP officer by name and my POP officer knows me by name and we have a great working relationship and they really help me out, but these patrol officers come in and handle a call and leave. I’d really like to get to know them.’ So I need more officers on patrol, but not just to do normal patrol work,  but to do more of this proactive work. I started a thing this year called geographical policing, which entails us having 18 beats in the city, with six districts under three commands. Each lieutenant owns two beats, so two parts of the city where they’re going to have accountability on a 24/7 basis. I need to give them more resources so they can start giving those officers more time to have that interaction with the community. Because, at the end of the day, who knows those communities better than those officers?

Comstock’s: How much of an issue is prison realignment for your force?
Somers: The jury is still out. I don’t think we’ll know for a couple of years. When you send someone to prison, it’s like sending them to crime school. Maybe someone was pretty bad going in, but when they come out they’re worse. So it’s concerning to me because now we have to deal with it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s insurmountable. The question is: Will we come up with a new system that actually has a better way of providing justice? Will that be a long-term solution as opposed to another short-term incarceration solution that just tries to warehouse everybody? Because now we think that if we just lock them up then the problem goes away, but the truth is it only goes away for a little bit.     


 

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