San Diego’s worsening problem with police officer vacancies is prompting the city to increase pay, analyze the reasons why officers are leaving and develop new strategies for recruiting and retention.
Among those efforts is $4 million in higher stipends for uniforms and equipment that the City Council is expected to approve Friday. But city leaders say much more is needed.
The number of vacancies had climbed to 239 out of 2,040 budgeted positions through Tuesday — nearly 12 percent. That’s sharply up from 170 vacancies last October and 207 in April.
San Diego’s crime rate has remained low despite the vacancy problem, but there is less proactive policing, investigators are facing intense workloads and response times are longer than if the department were fully staffed.
And things look discouraging for the department moving forward, with applications down 36 percent over the last two years and about 600 of the department’s 1,801 officers eligible to retire by 2022.
So the city is ramping up its efforts both short term and long term.
To help maintain minimum staffing levels despite the growing number of vacancies, $300,000 was added to the city budget in June to pay officers overtime so they can work longer hours when there are personnel shortages.
Long term, potentially significant pay raises are considered a key solution. And the city is expected to begin negotiating such hikes this October with the labor union representing police officers.
Those negotiations will be based partly on a $150,000 compensation study under way that aims to determine how officer pay in San Diego compares to other law enforcement agencies for rookies, longtime veterans and those in between.
An independent survey in fall 2014 showed San Diego police officers are at or near the bottom of the pay scale when compared to their counterparts in 18 other large cities and counties in California.
A recent analysis by the Union-Tribune shows San Diego rookies make $4,166 a month, compared with $5,730 in La Mesa, $4,910 for sheriff’s deputies, $5,243 in El Cajon and $6,123 in Chula Vista.
But even compensation increases haven’t proved effective recently. San Diego’s vacancy problem has continued to worsen despite a new five-year labor contract in spring 2015 that included $92 million in compensation increases for police officers.
So the city budget also includes $350,000 for a marketing effort to boost recruitment, which has become crucial with recent police academies running at about half capacity.
Many recruits take the first job offer they get, so the city may need to accelerate the hiring process and its background checks.
In addition, some other law enforcement agencies are more lenient than San Diego when it comes to convictions for drugs or driving under the influence. San Diego rejects about 95 percent of its applicants for one reason or another.
City Council members say they also want to study exactly why officers are leaving, suggesting the reasons may go beyond pay or be more complex than expected.
“There’s still a lot I want to know about why people stay and why people leave,” Councilwoman Barbara Bry said.
Councilman David Alvarez said he will be disappointed if the compensation study, which is scheduled for completion in October, doesn’t go beyond analyzing pay.
“We need to have a better assessment of why officers are leaving,” he said. “There could be other issues happening in the department that we don’t know about and that need to be assessed.”
Those could include morale, lack of advancement opportunities or other things no one has thought of, Alvarez said.
Bry and Alvarez said the $4 million for higher uniform stipends, which would all be paid out during the fiscal year that runs through next June, is only a small part of the solution.
“We want to make sure they stay and are happy,” Bry said. “This is a positive step forward in terms of the council and mayor demonstrating to our police officers that we care very much about them. It’s one step in the right direction.”
Additional salary increases in future years could be part of the new labor negotiations scheduled for October. Bry said the talks, which are called a “re-opener” of the current contract, would be crucial.
Alvarez said he expects the city to offer significant salary increases to police despite tight budget times.
“Public safety is the No. 1 responsibility for us so we’ve got to find a way to make it happen,” he said, noting the city could pay for part of the increases with $5 million included in the budget for a special election that won’t happen. “I’m certainly open to doing everything we can, as soon as we can, to make sure our Police Department is fully staffed and well prepared to serve the public.”
Brian Marvel, president of the police officers’ labor union, didn’t return phone calls this week.
Alvarez said the city needs to opt for “real” pay increases, not compensation increases like the $4 million for uniform stipend hikes.
The city has been opting for compensation hikes instead of traditional salary increases because of Proposition B, a 2012 ballot measure that froze “pensionable” pay for city employees until July of next year.
So the increases boost the take-home pay of officers without making the city’s long-term pension debt any higher.
In the 2015 labor pact, most of the increases are higher stipends for uniforms, additional holiday pay and lower health insurance contributions.
City officials and leaders of the police union expressed optimism at the time that the deal would help improve the vacancy problem. Now they say things would be even worse without the deal.
The deal’s only salary hikes, which do impact pensions, are 3.3 percent raises in July 2018 and July 2019 — after the Prop. B time frame. The October re-opener negotiations could increase those percentages.
Despite not affecting salary, the uniform stipend hikes will still help, Bry and Alvarez said.
The $4 million will cover an additional “uniform/equipment/cleaning allowance” of $1,505 for all officers, boosting the annual amount from $900 to $2,405.
In addition, officers with less than eight years of experience will get $2,100 more to cover the same expenses.
That move is in contrast to the 2015 deal, which gave larger raises to employees with at least eight years of experience. That was based on an analysis of which officers were departing to other law enforcement agencies most frequently.
Bry said the additional money for uniforms and equipment is justified.
“I’ve learned our police officers spend thousands of dollars a year on their uniforms and equipment,” she said. “This is money they will use to do their jobs for the community.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whose staff is handling the compensation study and marketing plan, agreed with Bry and Alvarez.
“This is the latest step in our efforts to make officer pay more competitive, but we know there is certainly more work to be done,” Faulconer said.