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Menifee Has One of California's Youngest Police Departments

Menifee Police Department patrol car.
Madison Aument
Menifee Police Department patrol car.

While the nation grappled with COVID-19 and tensions over police brutality, a mid-sized city in Riverside County made a massive financial and logistical decision to launch its own police department. Now, Menifee, a city of more than 100,000, has one of California’s newest police departments.

A row of new patrol cars emblazoned with Americans flags are parked outside the former Menifee city hall building, now the headquarters for the new police department. Ninety-three officers make up today’s force.

It’s a big step forward for Menifee, and represents a major shift in how the city patrols its streets. When Menifee incorporated in 2008, the city contracted its police services out to Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

Like a lot of cities in the region that rely on sheriff deputies to police their streets, Menifee city officials complained about rising contract costs. It prompted the city to commission a feasibility study to look at the cost savings of breaking ties with the sheriff department and creating its own police force.

The city’s report found that forming its own police department could save the city millions of dollars a year, improve response times and increase the amount of time officers are on the streets.

After passing a sales-tax increase that helps fund public safety and infrastructure projects, Menifee moved forward with plans to launch its own police force. And in late 2018, the city council voted unanimously to approve it.

“It was time to look at some other opportunities where we could have local control and be able to control the budgets,” said Menifee mayor Bill Zimmerman, who said those rising costs were becoming unsustainable, with close to 60% of the city’s budget going to public safety. Today, public safety makes up 55% of Menifee’s budget.

Menifee City Manager Armando Villa said between 2018-2021, Riverside County projected the cost of the sheriff’s contract would spike by 20%. Villa added that the sheriff’s department could not promise the city more officers despite the cost increases.

“We wanted to be able to dictate to ourselves what the level of service is going to be,” Villa said.

City officials also wanted a more local police presence to accommodate its surging population growth. Menifee has quietly become one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. Earlier this year, a report ranked Menifee among the top ten of the country’s boomtowns. The suburb’s more affordable housing market, compared to its expensive neighbors like Los Angeles or Orange County, have made it a destination for new residents.

“It was a feasibility issue. But also it was a local control issue, and also an ability to grow with us as we were growing,” Villa said.

But Menifee city budget data analyzed by KVCR shows that while the city did see some cost savings initially, costs have gone up significantly in the most recent budget cycle. The first police budget, which covered the fiscal year 2020-2021, was about $13 million, roughly the same amount as the cost of the previous fiscal year’s $12.9 million contract with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. But in fiscal year 2021-2022, the police budget rose to $17.3 million.

Villa explains the cost increase by pointing to the city’s population. As Menifee has grown, so has its revenue, allowing the city to increase funding dedicated to policing. Menifee Police Department has also added a SWAT team, more police personnel and is hoping to expand headquarters to house its growing force, said Villa. In the current fiscal year, Menifee’s police budget rose to $27.5 million, but it only accounts for about 23.3% of the city’s overall budget.

Starting a new police department from scratch was challenging, but Menifee’s timing made it even more difficult. The city launched its force in July 2020, right in the middle of a pandemic and just weeks after officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and the nationwide protests against police violence that followed.

“This was during a lot of unrest, and here we were starting this brand new police department,” said Mayor Zimmerman.

There were some local protests in Menifee, but they were relatively peaceful and tensions never escalated to violence. City officials hoped the national conversation around policing could also be an opportunity to build better relationships in their community.

“And we're certainly not going to stand for or ever allow or tolerate police brutality. And

that was our message back to them,” Zimmerman said. “We've seen it in other places, and we will not tolerate that here.”

Building relationships with Menifee’s communities of color was also a priority for Pat Walsh, Menifee’s first police chief. Walsh, a career-veteran in law enforcement, had previously worked for the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon and more recently was the chief of the Lompoc Police Department in Santa Barbara County.

Walsh held an online town hall meeting with Greg Perkins, the pastor of The View Church, a predominantly African American church in Menifee to discuss race relations and policing.

“We just, we just spoke about it, you know, and, and at the end of it, Greg Perkins is like, you're my brother,” said Walsh.

For Walsh, among other things, it underscored the importance of hiring good people. Because they were all new, they were also on probation. If an officer behaved badly, Walsh said, “...and it didn't get corrected, boom, you're gone.”

Walsh, who retired but is filling in as interim chief, said there were some growing pains and not everyone he hired was a right fit.

“There were some people that didn't survive me and are no longer there. And so the thing is police chiefs have a tough time getting rid of embedded cops that are protected by union lawyers and blah, blah, blah. But it never stopped me,” he said.

Still, the people of Menifee said they’re happy to have a police department that is accountable to them. Mark Dool has lived and worked in the city for five years.

“I notice their presence,” said Dool. “I leave for work very early in the morning and I notice if there’s any activity, if there’s multiple units on the scene. And it does make me feel safer.”

This story was produced with the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state. Bella Arnold of Berkeley Journalism's Investigative Reporting Program, Leila Barghouty and Irene Casado Sánchez of Stanford Journalism's Big Local News, Lisa Pickoff-White of Big Local News and KQED and Emily Zentner of the California Newsroom contributed to this report. Also, the Council Data Project provided assistance.