San Diego Police Staffing Woes: It’s Low Pay, And A Lot More

The San Diego Police Department is largely alone in its hiring and retention problems within the county, and it may be no coincidence that every other city pays better and some are finding ways to hire faster.

While San Diego is running short by more than 200 officers, many other police agencies locally and some around the nation are at full staffing, or close to it. They say they receive sufficient numbers of qualified applicants to meet their needs.

San Diego is budgeted for 2,039 sworn officer positions, but had just 1,834 of those positions filled as of the end of May.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman has repeatedly apprised the City Council of her staffing woes, which she blames on comparative low pay and benefits as well as negative depictions of law enforcement by news media and through social media.

A national expert on police recruiting, training and ethics issues agrees, seeing the nation generally facing “a looming crisis” in hiring.

“The American policing profession may be facing the most fundamental questioning of its legitimacy in decades,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., said in a recent report. “The very essence of policing is being debated in many cities, often because of controversial video recordings of police officers’ actions.”

He noted public trust is eroding at the same time large numbers of officers are being killed in the line of duty.

Other police departments faced with these challenges are finding solutions.

They have increased pay, and found that the speed of the hiring process makes a difference in keeping up with attrition. Further, some have adopted more “progressive” views on past minor drug use and the acceptability of tattoos so they eliminate fewer job applicants. Many offer one or more paid days off to any officer who recruits a new hire.

Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said pay and benefits are the No. 1 reason recruits choose other agencies, or stay long enough to get training, then transfer to another city or state.

The city’s benefits and retirement used to be enough to attract recruits, despite the lower pay, but those have eroded in recent years, Marvel said.

A San Diego police officer fresh out of the academy earns $4,166 a month, compared with $5,730 in La Mesa, $4,910 for sheriff’s deputies, $5,243 in El Cajon and the highest pay in the county, $6,123 in Chula Vista.

San Diego officers took a pay cut in 2009, and haven’t had a raise since. Officers will receive a 3.3 percent raise in July 2018.

Zimmerman, who is seeking one additional position next year, has said she’d like San Diego to pay its officers more.

Leaders of other police agencies agree that pay and benefits are important, especially for the bulk of today’s applicants – millennials.

“Millennials know what retirement benefits are, they pay attention to salaries and benefits,” San Diego County sheriff’s Capt. L. James Bovet said. He noted that a younger generation knows how to comparison shop instantly, with their smartphones. “A lot of these kids are definitely shopping agencies.”

San Diego’s pay also falls short of what new officers make in many comparably sized jurisdictions around the U.S. Academy graduates in Columbus, Ohio, make $4,494 a month, while the police department in Austin, Texas, pays $4,390.

Those agencies face the same recruiting hurdles as San Diego, such as competition with nearby agencies, greater public scrutiny of their actions and a new generation of officers who are willing to change departments to chase higher pay.

Zimmerman, like chiefs at many police agencies, traces major hiring and retention problems to the start of the Great Recession in 2008-09. With pay and hiring freezes looming, hundreds of San Diego officers retired to preserve their benefits. In all, 260 officers left in 2009, Marvel said.

By 2011, the department’s attrition rate averaged six more officers leaving each month than were hired. The attrition rate climbed to 12 per month the next year and is up to 13.

In San Diego County, seven of the nine local police departments and the Sheriff’s Department are fully staffed or short by only a couple of officers.

Chula Vista is down by five officers but is funding five more positions in the next fiscal year. Oceanside is short 15 officers. An Oceanside police spokesman said eight to 10 open positions is more typical.

Lt. Scott Wahl, San Diego’s police spokesman, said it isn’t fair to compare his agency’s hiring difficulties with much smaller departments.

“Smaller agencies may not have the same issues,” Wahl said. “If we were trying to hire five people a year, we could do that right away. We’re looking to hire 200.”

He added that even if every officer in the county got the same pay, San Diego cops have a tougher work environment. “San Diego officers go to more calls, get in more violent situations and get shot at more. The San Diego officer’s working harder for that same buck,” Wahl said.

Departments have learned that acting swiftly to screen applicants also can help. Carlsbad and National City streamlined the processing of applicant background checks — and now can make job offers faster than other departments.

A year ago, Carlsbad was down 14 officers. It has since hired all but two of its 115 budgeted positions. The improvement came after they contracted out background checks, getting more done at a time, said Carlsbad Sgt. Steve Thomas.

“Recruits take the first job offered to them,” Thomas said. “Lateral hires (from other police departments) can be pickier. We were ready for the retirements, and started background checks ahead of them.”

The Austin Police Department put its 37-page application online and got such a huge response that it actually bogged down the rest of its hiring process. Austin police Sgt. Matthew Fortes said his agency used to receive 1,000 applications a year, but after the department put the process online in December, it got 1,500 in four months.

Wahl said San Diego has been streamlining, too, and now it can take as little as three months to get hired, instead of up to two years. The department put more detectives in the unit that runs background checks, and began making conditional job offers before the required medical evaluation was finished.

San Diego has not gone to online applications, but is looking into it. “We have to look at the entire process,” said Wahl.

Zimmerman has frequently cited a general negative public feeling toward police as a factor in recruiting and retention difficulties.

When she was promoted to chief three years ago, the department had endured a string of officer misconduct cases, with some officers being convicted of rape, domestic violence and selling drugs.

Wahl said some recruits who dropped out of the hiring process specifically cited violence against officers as a reason. Some also cited the negative light cast on an El Cajon police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man who pointed a vaping device at him.

But not every police official agrees that YouTube videos of questionable police shootings or news coverage of officers being murdered on the job stop people from applying.

“I haven’t seen it,” said Coronado police Capt. Lazlo Waczek. “I don’t think people who go into this job think they’ll be put in that position” of using deadly force.

“It’s either a calling or it’s not,” El Cajon police Capt. Frank LaHaye said of his profession. “I’ve seen over the years — when the economy’s good, more jobs are available and people pick jobs that fit their lifestyle better. When the economy’s bad, we get lots of applicants.”

From The San Diego Union-Tribune

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