SAN JOSE -- Seasoned detectives quelling rowdy bar crowds. Tactical team officers directing traffic around car accidents. Motor officers off their bikes and walking the streets.
A lot of veteran San Jose police officers are back doing what they did when they were rookies, filling gaps in the understaffed patrol division, which police brass have deemed the lifeblood of the force.
It's the new identity of the San Jose Police Department, which is funneling resources into routine patrols and emergency response at the expense of the vice, electronic crimes, gang and other special units. The proactive work of those special units helped distinguish the department among its big-city peers and is credited for the trumpeted years in the mid-2000s when San Jose was regularly named the safest large city in the country.
"It will be more of a reactive police department," Assistant Chief Eddie Garcia said. "When a business starts losing staffing, they need to concentrate on that initial thing they provide. Ours is the uniformed patrol force, answering that 911 call for service. We're going to have to sacrifice some things, and quite frankly, moving forward, we're going to have to sacrifice quite a few things."
A particular set of internal department figures bears that out. In 2007, before an exodus of officers amid pay cuts and a still-running political battle over pension and disability benefits, officers processed 9,830 suspects at police headquarters rather than county jail, a figure generally used to benchmark proactive arrests. In 2013, that number dropped to 1,788. Overall arrests have dropped over the same period, but it's telling that in 2007 these "self-initiated" arrests accounted for 27 percent of the total of 36,172, and dropped to under 10 percent of the 18,314 total arrests in 2013.
A steady decrease in the national crime rate -- about 5 percent last year, according to FBI figures -- might explain some of that decline. But department insiders say it largely boils down to fewer working officers in each city district, with emergency calls eating into time that might otherwise be spent on investigation or crime prevention.
The focus on emergency response has also translated into sluggish response to burglary calls and dwindling traffic enforcement. Prostitution and drug dealing are stopped less often because the Metro special-enforcement team once dedicated to those issues is instead helping curb gang violence. The rapid proliferation of suburban illegal marijuana grows remains unchecked, surfacing only when growhouses catch fire and threaten neighborhoods.
From a peak of more than 1,400 sworn officers in 2008, there are now just over 1,000, with about 900 available for full duty. About half are assigned to patrol, which is still short of the 492-officer prescribed minimum for patrols citywide. The shortage is made up in overtime shifts and reassigning officers from other divisions. Such specialties as missing-persons and robberies merged, while others, including auto theft, became one- or two-man units. Only four detectives work financial crimes, an 80 percent reduction, against a backdrop of rising property crimes statewide.
That was a sore point for Cambrian resident Lily Leiby, whose home-security system caught clear video of a man breaking into her home Aug. 3. But like many burglary victims, she was initially told her case was likely just being added to a pile.
"They said unless we would've caught him right there and then, they don't investigate this much," Leiby said. "We had the same experience two years ago. It's why we're so frustrated."
She got rare good news though, when dogged work by an off-duty sergeant led to an arrest later in the week.
Recently, special-operations officers, such as those in the Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment unit -- SJPD's SWAT equivalent -- were pulled into monthly patrols, and the department is considering eliminating the motorcycle unit and reassigning its 12 day-to-day officers.
Some question whether allowing patrol to cannibalize all others is the right tactic, including Dennis Kenney, a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert in police-training procedures.
"Just maintaining patrol is probably not an advisable approach," Kenney said. "There's a point of diminishing returns, a tipping point with patrol where you have too few people."
He alluded to other departments in the country addressing similar shortfalls by turning to analytics-based policing -- concentrating officers on high-crime areas, but leaving safer areas thinly patrolled. SJPD's situation, he said, provides a rare chance to fully re-evaluate each service's importance.
"They need to spend a lot of time thinking about, 'Is it worth doing?'" he said.
The cultural shift away from specialties has been a factor in many SJPD departures, which have averaged more than 100 the past three years.
"Opportunities that people came to this department to do don't exist anymore," said Kirk Wilson, a 22-year veteran who left SJPD in June.
Wilson, who worked five years in the defunct high-tech crime unit, was one of four specialized officers who left for jobs as investigators with the Santa Clara District Attorney's Office. That included Patricia Jaime, a social worker-turned-cop who worked in the sexual-assault and crime-scene units, veteran gang investigator Clayton Le, and Internet crimes detective Chris Harden.
"I hope our departure sheds light on what's happening," Harden said. "We're speaking with our feet."
The loss of that kind of knowledge and experience translates into unsolved crimes, says retired Capt. Tom Brewer, who formed the department's Metro special-enforcement unit in the late-1990s by merging the narcotics and street-crimes teams.
Brewer says it takes years working a beat to effectively thwart recurring crime issues, citing gangs as an example.
"A crime can go down and one cop's knowledge of a little tattoo, and they know who did it. You can't have good street enforcement without that institutionalized knowledge," he said, adding that it could take "decades" to rebuild.
Well-chronicled political struggles have largely driven SJPD's transformation: City Hall-led initiatives to rein in spiraling pension and disability costs were met with fierce resistance by the police union, and embittered officers left in droves. The union blames city leaders for decimating the police force, while city reformers accuse the union of running a fear campaign and driving away applicants. Both sides now hope to hire more cops. But the rebuilding effort hit an obstacle this month when the council could not muster enough votes to propose sales tax increases that could have been used for those hires.
Much of the hoped growth hinges on an ambitious recruiting plan: to field three police academies a year of at least 50 cadets each. The current class has 24 cadets, a historic low. Police officials expect future classes will approach the maximum.
Garcia says he's optimistic, and inspired by the tireless work being done by officers in tenuous circumstances.
"Nobody answers the bell more often than the men and women in this department," Garcia said. "You put aside all the issues, and still, nothing beats the job itself as an SJPD officer."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.