SAN DIEGO, CA — San Diego city and police officials are hoping Mark Stroud is the future of the SDPD.
They’re not anticipating he’ll be chief one day, or even a top-ranking member of the department, though there’s nothing saying he couldn’t become either of those things.
What they see in the return of the 31-year-old patrol officer is a glimmer of hope that their efforts to resolve a long-term staffing shortage are working.
Stroud joined SDPD two years ago, but left about a year later for the Escondido Police Department. The main reason was as simple as it is ubiquitous for workers everywhere: better pay and benefits.
He and his wife were starting a family and Stroud figured that would be difficult to do on SDPD wages.
“The pay in San Diego had made it not impossible, but it delayed our plans to buy a house,” he said, noting the high cost of living in San Diego.
SDPD is some 200 officers short of its 2,040 budgeted positions. Surveys showed that department pay was comparatively low, even among some smaller departments in the region.
The future looked even worse: applicants dropped 30 percent over the past two years and about 600 officers are eligible to retire by 2022.
City officials were hamstrung by a pay freeze that was part of the 2012 Proposition B pension overhaul and tinkering around the edges — such as boosting uniform allowances and promising smaller future pay raises — didn’t seem to work.
Critics also contend the application and vetting process is more cumbersome than elsewhere and that controversial officer-involved shootings and misconduct have hurt the image of the department.
Last year, a new contract was approved that will boost salaries up to 30 percent over a few years. The raises take effect July 1, when the pay freeze lifts.
That was one of the reasons Stroud came back at the beginning of January.
“The pay helped but it’s a great department,” he said, even adding “it’s a fun department to work with.”
He acknowledged that “Escondido wasn’t a good fit for me, personally,” but had nothing bad to say about his short time there and pointed to some things — such as providing equipment — that Escondido did particularly well.
Stroud said SDPD offers more opportunity to move up and do different things because of its size.
He said he had heard another former San Diego officer was coming back after working with the San Diego Unified School District police force. Like city officials, Stroud cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about whether the new contract will solve the staffing problems.
But he said that when the raises were announced, a buzz went through the Escondido Police Department and he suspects other law enforcement agencies as well.
“It was definitely going around: ‘Wow. San Diego’s getting more competitive,’” he said. “I can see more people talking about it and considering coming back.”
He mentioned a fellow Escondido officer, another SDPD alum, who talked about coming back, but Stroud added that a new, desirable assignment probably would keep that person there, at least for a while.
The San Diego police pay raises, which the City Council approved Dec. 5, will provide all officers with an increase of at least 25.6 percent between in July and January 2020; veterans with more than 20 years on the job will get a 30.6 boost.
But 6.6 percent of those raises — 3.3 percent in July 2018 and July 2019 — was already included in a previous labor pact with officers the city approved in spring 2015. So the amount of new money is between 19 percent and 24 percent.
Lt. Scott Wahl, SDPD spokesman, said he believed the buzz around the contract would continue to build as the July 1 raises approach.
“This contract should immediately help us retain the sworn personnel we currently have,” he said. “I can say anecdotally, it has had a positive impact on morale.”
Despite the staffing issues, Wahl and others regularly note the low crime rate in San Diego.
“Our department may not be the only factor involved in achieving such low crime rates, however, without us rates this low wouldn’t be possible,” he said.
In his State of the City address Jan. 11, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said “San Diego is one of the safest big cities in the country.”
“Overall crime is at its lowest point in half a century,” he said. “However, we can never take that for granted.”
He said filling those 200 or so police positions is a priority, and that there are signs the new contract may help the city get there.
“Although the ink on the deal is barely dry, applications are already up. Retirements have slowed. And some officers who had left our department have already returned,” he said.
He noted that San Diego is launching a national recruiting campaign for police officers. Meanwhile, the city would be more than happy to attract — and bring back — officers who essentially work next door.
The mayor also made this pledge: “… when we’re done, for the first time in over a decade, we will have a fully staffed police force!”