Night hours cut for sheriff's deputies on Marin's coast

07/29/2020

Coastal Marin will no longer be patrolled by the sheriff at night. 

Facing a budget shortfall, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office is reducing staffing at the Point Reyes substation this week, leaving no deputies assigned to the coast between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m. each day, when previously there were two. Deputies will still respond to emergencies, but it will take longer, depending on where they are located. 

With the nearest working substations more than 40 minutes away in San Rafael, Novato, Mill Valley and Kentfield, firefighters and residents are concerned about public safety.

Sheriff Robert Doyle said the change is not optimal, and he hopes to restore staffing levels in the fall, when seven deputies will graduate from the police academy. 

“I understand the concern that people have in West Marin,” he told the Light on Tuesday. “I just hope that they are patient and know that we will still respond to emergencies.” 

The cuts have been under consideration for years, based on the relatively low call volume and large area in West Marin. Between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m., the coast has averaged five and a half calls a night over the past three years, and most don’t require an immediate response, Sheriff Doyle said.

In a sample of four weeks from June 29 to July 23, the sheriff’s press log recorded 93 calls from West Marin during the hours that are being cut; about one-third of those calls were potentially urgent: threats, violence and arguments. Thirty-two of the calls were related to a disturbance, 15 were traffic-related, and two of the calls were for cows on the road. Most of the calls came between 8 and 11 a.m., and people in Bolinas and Point Reyes Station called the most.

Firefighters are alarmed by the decision, as they are worried about having to wait longer for a deputy to ensure that a scene is safe. On potentially dangerous calls—an assault, a mental health crisis, or even a drunken bonfire—firefighters stage just outside the scene while they wait for a deputy to arrive. One of the first questions firefighters ask on these calls is where the nearest deputy is coming from. Sometimes they get lucky and a deputy is already in their town, and other times, the closest deputy has to travel from Dillon Beach to Stinson Beach. Now, the default will be that the closest deputy is over the hill.

Kenny Stevens, the fire chief for Stinson Beach, said that going from waiting 15 minutes to waiting 40 minutes could be a matter of life and death. Law enforcement response times need to be quicker, and he hopes it doesn’t take someone getting hurt for that to happen.

“Someone could bleed to death while we wait for them,” he said. “It’s a bad decision by the sheriff. All I can do is warn people to be safe in their own neighborhood, because this is going to invite people to come out here and start committing crimes.”

Even with two deputies on the coast, long response times still occur because of the long distances between towns. Other law enforcement officers—from the National Park Service, the California Highway Patrol and the Coast Guard—also help with enforcement and protection in various circumstances when the sheriff is spread thin.

The San Geronimo Valley will still be patrolled by deputies out of the Kentfield substation. Lieutenant Brennan Collins, who took over as watch commander at the Point Reyes substation last month, said that those deputies will shift their mindset to be positioned further west at night.

“I’m disappointed that we have to do this, but I’m optimistic that we can still get the job done,” he said. “I understand the fear, and I understand the concern. But distance was a factor before, and it is now with the change. That goes with being in any rural community."

Callers reporting a petty theft with no suspect may have to wait to make an in-person report until the following morning, but any in-progress call will still be responded to, he said.

Besides cutting the Point Reyes substation hours, the sheriff also has frozen the hiring of four deputies and four dispatchers. 

The cuts are a result of a $2.2 million budget shortfall for the sheriff’s office. At the county’s budget hearings in June, over 400 residents called in to ask supervisors to deny a proposed budget increase of $3.2 million for the sheriff’s office amid nationwide protests and calls to defund police. The increase was not intended for new positions or services, but rather for contractually obligated pay raises and pension costs.

At the end of the hearings, supervisors amended the proposed budget to approve only half of the sheriff’s increase. But the money that was not approved will be credited to the office in the 5 percent reduction that all departments must propose by the end of August to close a projected $15 to $20 million county budget shortfall, county administrator Matthew Hymel said. The shortfall is mainly a result of lost state tax revenue.

Because Sheriff Doyle was singled out during the hearings, he had to make his reductions before other departments. He told the Light on Tuesday that the board’s vote to approve only half of his budget increase was all for show, since other departments would have to make the same cuts eventually. He said the board grandstanded, and he is bothered that not one supervisor was positive about law enforcement.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he would make the same vote to reduce the sheriff’s budget today, but said he does not have enough understanding to criticize the sheriff’s staffing decisions. He did not anticipate that cuts would be focused on West Marin, and he stands by his earlier statement that the conversation about shifting resources away from law enforcement is just beginning.

Last Friday, after the sheriff’s office announced the cut, Supervisor Rodoni sent an email to constituents saying that he had asked Sheriff Doyle to inform him of the staffing changes beforehand, but that he had not been alerted. First responders were also not told about the decision before it was made or announced.

“Failure to collaborate with the fire services wasn’t a constructive way to approach this,” said David Kimball, the board president of the Bolinas Fire Protection District. “We usually are pretty good about mutual aid, and we work quite well with the deputies who are assigned out here.”

The sheriff’s office is budgeted for 153 deputies, and 53 of them are assigned to patrol; the rest mostly work in the jail or the courthouse. Currently, just 38 of the patrol deputies are available, while the remaining 30 percent are at training, on disability, or in the police academy. Usually about 10 deputies are on the clock countywide. The money left unspent on vacancies is typically used to pay deputies for overtime to keep staffing level, but after the budget was cut, the overtime money shrank.

Beyond first responders, residents are also concerned that the lack of law enforcement will invite crime.

“We need more, not less, coverage out here as the population changes. Because all of the West Marin communities are much more on the map than they’ve ever been, we are seeing more typically urban issues arise,” said Ken Levin, the president of the Point Reyes Station Village Association. “It’s not just cows in the road anymore.”

Laura Arndt, who also sits on the village association, is taking a wait-and-see approach before criticizing the decision. To her, defunding the police is about ending police militarization, not community patrols. In her conversations with sheriff’s office employees, they’ve understood her concerns. “I trust that they will do their best to take care of the people of West Marin, but we will have to see what happens,” she said. 

For Steve Marcotte, an assistant fire chief in Bolinas, it makes West Marin a bit lonelier. “I’m concerned about when someone calls 911 and they need law enforcement,” he said. “At nighttime, when there is no one around, now there will really be no one around.”

 

Jack Truesdale contributed to reporting for this article.