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San Diego’s Police Officer Retention Problems Hit New Low

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As the city continues to struggle with recruiting and retaining its police force, the San Diego officers union says the number of patrol officers has fallen below the minimum requirement.

It’s a problem that’s plagued the San Diego Police Department for years — more officers are leaving the agency than are coming on board. Despite recent city efforts to combat the problem, the men and women on the force say the situation is growing worse.

Police Officers Association Vice President Jeff Jordon pointed to the city’s minimum patrol requirements as an example.

"Six hundred forty-six — with no time off, no break, no nothing — that’s what you need to patrol this city," Jordon said at a union-hosted briefing Tuesday night. "As of Aug. 8, we hit 641 for the first time, so we’re below the minimum of what we need to patrol the city.”

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman agreed, although she said she couldn't comment on the union's specific numbers.

“We are often below what our recommended staffing is on a daily, nightly basis when we go out and patrol," Zimmerman said.

Patrol officers are just part of the equation. As of July 30, staffing hit 1,189 sworn officers — the lowest level in more than a decade.

Both the chief and police union agree it will take years to dig us out.

Qualified recruits are hard to come by, and better pay offered by other agencies is increasingly luring experienced officers away. Last year, the department hired 160 officers, but lost 162 (98 retired, 17 left for other agencies and the rest left for unknown reasons.)

Zimmerman said that adds up to more than just a net loss of two.

“No matter how quickly we’re able to put our officers through the academy, it’s not a one for one. It takes years of experience to build up the skill set to become the next homicide detective or next gang detective," she said.

Since July 1, the department has lost 21 officers.

Zimmerman said the impact on San Diego's streets has been largely limited to a rise in quality of life issues, such as traffic issues and complaints about the homeless population.

But union President Brian Marvel worries it’s only a matter of time before the situation grows more serious.

“The fact that we’re losing officers faster than we can recruit is going to be a public safety issue, not only a safety issue for the citizens, but it’s also a safety issue for the officers that we represent," Marvel said.

Yet this hemorrhaging of officers is not new — it's years old. So the big question is: When will something actually happen?

Zimmerman and the police union both hope the turning point will come after a statewide survey of officer compensation is out in October. But the key word is "hope."

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