San Bernardino Police

Police Officer Edward Lee, a member of the San Bernardino Police Department, at a wall that a robber reportedly climbed. (Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times)

By Michael Wines
Feb. 2, 2016

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Detective Ryan Wicks trained the headlights of his Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor on a young man spotted fleeing local gang members and climbed out of his car, a battered black-and-white cruiser of mid-2000s vintage. The odometer stood north of 95,000 miles. A rear fender was scarred by the belt buckles of hundreds of suspects who had been spread-eagled against it.

Having uncovered a butcher knife and delivered a warning, Detective Wicks settled back into the driver’s seat and felt something blocking a foot. He looked down.

“My speaker’s on the floor,” he said.

The nation knows the San Bernardino Police Department for its heroism Dec. 2, when its officers led a perilous and widely praised search for a husband-and-wife terrorist team that had fatally shot 14 people and wounded 22 others at a holiday party. But the daily reality for San Bernardino’s finest is entirely different: a corps savaged by budget cuts, rattletrap equipment, crushing workloads and sunken morale.

Since the city went bankrupt in 2012, its tax base swept away by the Great Recession, officers have retired or moved to other departments in droves. “We had an exodus, everyone jumping ship,” Detective Wicks said.

Jarrod Burguan, the department’s chief and a 24-year veteran of the force, said the slide had been tough. “We’d never been an agency before that people left for other departments — the type of place where people said, ‘I don’t like working here,’ ” he said. “If anything, we attracted guys because it was a place where it’s fun being a cop.”

There are signs, however, of an inflection point for the struggling force. In November, Chief Burguan proposed a five-year, $50.6 million rebuilding plan, adding officers — and, yes, new cruisers — to combat what F.B.I. data say is one of California’s highest crime rates.

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