San Diego’s chronic struggle with police officer vacancies is continuing to worsen despite large pay raises approved in December, prompting police officials to significantly revamp recruiting policies for the first time in many years.
Recruiting efforts are focusing more on local candidates, the Police Department’s recruiting website has been redesigned and the city will soon pay a marketing firm $500,000 to help attract recruits.
In addition, the department is devoting more staff to recruiting efforts and last month launched a partnership with Health and Sciences High School in City Heights to groom some potential young officers.
City officials hope the revamped approach, coupled with pay raises of at least 25 percent for all officers, will help soften and potentially solve a chronic shortage of officers that has continued to worsen.
The latest data from the Police Department unveiled on Wednesday show that the number of vacancies has climbed above 250 for the first time since the city began focusing on the shortage of officers in 2012.
Assistant Chief Sandra Albrektsen told the City Council’s public safety committee that the number of officers has dropped to 1,787, down from 1,800 in December, 1,820 last summer and 1,833 in fall 2016.
The goal has long been 2,040 officers, so the latest tally leaves the city 253 officers short.
Albrektsen, who heads the department’s backgrounds and recruiting unit, said one reason December’s pay raises haven’t yet boosted recruiting and retention is that they don’t start kicking in until July.
The package approved by the City Council gives all officers cumulative hikes of at least 25.6 percent between this July and January 2020, and veterans with more than 20 years on the job get 30.6 percent raises.
All officers are scheduled for 8.3 percent hikes in July.
Albrektsen said 25 officers have left for other law enforcement agencies since July. They went to several different agencies for a variety of reasons, making it difficult for police officials to find any pattern they could learn from, she said.
Meanwhile, the department has been making significant changes to the recruitment process for new officers, based partly on concerns that roughly 95 percent of applicants fail to become officers.
A committee created last fall to evaluate the department’s written exam unveiled a new version of the test on Jan. 1 and shrunk the re-test waiting period from 90 days to 60 days.
Background checks, which typically take three to four months, have been streamlined with several changes, including a new approach to polygraph tests in hopes of boosting the pass rate above the current 47 percent.
Beginning Oct. 1, investigators handling pre-polygraph interviews have strived to make their questions as identical as possible to the questions on the polygraph exam, Albrektsen said.
This alerts candidates to questions on the exam regarding prior substance abuse and criminal activity, which can disqualify them from becoming a police officer.
The goal is to avoid administering polygraph tests to candidates who are likely to fail, which wastes department resources and slows down the background check process for other potential officers.
The department is also focusing its recruiting efforts more on candidates within a two-hour drive of San Diego because their local ties make them more likely to become long-term San Diego Police Department officers, Albrektsen said.
“We seem to get the most bang for our buck when we do that,” she said.
The city is also giving police written tests at military bases and boosting recruitment of people transitioning out of the military, a group that makes up about 30 percent of applicants for San Diego police officer positions.
The department’s recruiting website has also been redesigned with better graphics, links to application forms and new videos that aim to decrease candidate anxiety by showing how the process works. Albrektsen said they are also exploring a possible mobile app.
The department is scheduled on Friday to launch a “request for proposals” that aims to find an outside marketing firm to help the city make its police officer jobs more appealing. The city budget approved last spring includes $500,000 for such an effort.
The revamped approaches and new strategies have required more personnel devoted to recruiting, Albrektsen said.
A sergeant is now focused solely on recruiting, and the number of officer positions in recruiting has been increased from four to five.
Councilwoman Barbara Bry of La Jolla said she was upbeat about the changes.
“I think this is good news,” she said. “Hopefully this will be a really good year for recruiting and retention.”