San Diego's Police Officer Retention Problems Hit New Low
TOM FUDGE: Our top story on Midday Edition, keeping police is a problem in San Diego. Last fiscal year, the SDP the lost 162 police who quit or retired. The good news is, they did hire 160, for a net loss of only two. But, the department could lose a close to half of its force in the coming three years, if the cops were eligible exercise the ability to retire. Can we hire enough people to respond to that potential departure? What can San Diego due to encourage people to stay, when neighboring cities offer better pay and benefits? Joining me in studio is Brian Marvel. He is president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, and thank you for coming in. Today, San Diego police chief Shelley Zimmerman was not available to join us for the live Midday show, the KPBS did speak with her this morning, here is what she had to say about the current state of the department: [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] KELLY ZIMMERMAN: We are either very young and inexperienced, or we are very experienced with about 400 officers ready to retire. What I can tell you is, we do move our officers working patrol from one area to another, we're often below what our recommended staffing is on a daily basis when we patrol. [END AUDIO FILE] TOM FUDGE: Brian, the San Diego Police Officers Association report found that the SDPD has the lowest number of officers now that it has had in the last decade, is that correct? BRIAN MARVEL: That is true. We actually grafted out over the ten years, and it has a been a steady decline ever since. TOM FUDGE: How do you respond to the Chief's comments? BRIAN MARVEL: I think we are in agreements with her. We had been trying to let people know that there is been an issue facing our department for many years. I think we have reached the point where we can no longer have the committee for this, or talk about this, it actually needs to be actionable items going forward. TOM FUDGE: And the police chief seemed to talk about a lot of shuffling around of personnel. Do we have enough officers patrolling, in the city at any given time? BRIAN MARVEL: It's interesting that you bring that up the auditor just did a report on our patrol operations, and he said that basically we need 640 officers working patrol just to be able to answer radio calls. As of today, we are at 641. We are well below that number, which is even below the standard throughout the United States which allows about 40% of free time for officers to do proactive work. When I talk about free time, I don't mean just driving around. It gives the opportunity for officers to address crime, is all problems and address community concerns. TOM FUDGE: How does the police union determine the minimum number of officers on the street? You use the audit? BRIAN MARVEL: We use the auditor, the auditor's report, and there's also an organization that actually studies international associations of Chiefs of police. This is an international association of leadership throughout the world and specifically in the United States. They look at best practices, and how best to police cities. They recommend that 40% free time for officers to do proactive activity actually helps to reduce crime, focus on community issues of and quality of life issues that we constantly hear about. Our department will probably never be up to reach that level in a short amount of time, because we would need over 1200 officers, and we're already at 641. TOM FUDGE: It's interesting that you're talking about free time, because I have heard that one way that the city of San Diego has been able to maintain a relatively small force and keep crime down is through community-oriented policing. Is that what you're talking about when you talk about what cops do during free time? BRIAN MARVEL: That is exactly what I'm talking about. Our department was well renowned for the community oriented policing that was done around here. When I came on the department in 1991 and I was working the streets, if you're not having a community project, you are either working on one, closing one, or working on a new one. We are not doing that today, which is unfortunate. TOM FUDGE: We heard from Chief Zimmerman the 400 officers are now eligible to retire, but I understand if you look at the coming three years, about 800 officers will be qualified to retire. That is nearly half of the sworn force. We are losing cops to other departments. Why are cops making lateral moves to other cities? BRIAN MARVEL: We're finding out the city of San Diego at one time used to offer fringe benefits on the backend, saying come here, we will not pay you as much as other agencies, but we have other benefits when you do a full career here that you will receive. Well over the last ten years or so, the city has actually eliminated a lot of those benefits, so now the city is having to go toe to toe with other agencies that have total compensation and take-home pay. Unfortunately, the city has always been on the back burner on that, and they are behind the eight ball on this. We are trying to bring our compensation up to the median. Officers are leaving for other agencies, and they are receiving anywhere from $1000-$1300 in take-home pay a month when they go to another agency, that makes us uncompetitive, and these recruits recognize that after they got the Academy TOM FUDGE: How much does the San Diego Police Officers make? BRIAN MARVEL: Annually, about $76,000. TOM FUDGE: $76,000, that is the median or the average? BRIAN MARVEL: That is well below average. TOM FUDGE: But that is the average for San Diego? BRIAN MARVEL: That is the average for San Diego, after five years you would hit that top step PO2. Other agencies are offering $3000-$7000 more. TOM FUDGE: When you talk about other agencies, are you talking about other agencies in San Diego county? BRIAN MARVEL: The Sheriff's Department has a lucrative contract that we're competing with. They are about $6000 more than we pay now. Over the next four years that will go over $17,000. TOM FUDGE: The Police Officers Association has been sounding the alarm on this issue for a number of years. What have city leaders done to address recruitment and retention? BRIAN MARVEL: In 2006 when Jerry Sanders was Mayor, he went in front of the council and spoke about how the levels at the Police Department were dangerously low. Being a former chief of police he recognized that and made a plea to the officers to stay with them, work through the financial difficulties that the city is facing, and he really appreciated the officers. We had 100 officers more when he made that speech in 2006 than we do today. We're going through the same process, we have a salary survey being worked on right now, but we have been trying to say, we think that it needs to be an actionable item. The rhetoric needs to stop. TOM FUDGE: We asked Chief Zimmerman this morning about how losing so many officers is impacting public safety. Here's what she had to say: [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] KELLY ZIMMERMAN: We're still doing a good job to reduce violent crime, that will always be the focus to make sure that the city is safe. And we talk about quality of life issues, I get an earful from the public that they did not see the officers as often as they did before, and we're not addressing as quickly as we once did the quality of life issues, and not giving the extra service that we used to do as far as doing crime prevention surveys at homes right when the burglary happens. [END AUDIO FILE] BRIAN MARVEL: She is spot on again on that one. Quality-of-life issues are one of the biggest things we hear about when we get a community meetings. A lot of violent and major crimes, sometimes the community sees that and make comments about it. A lot of times we are out in the field and we're getting flagged down on quality-of-life issues, speeding cars on my block, people vandalizing this house, graffiti here, those are the real issues that we get hammered on in the community, and we are not able to address those as effectively as we as to when we were up to about 2100 officers. TOM FUDGE: What about response times? Are they down or are they up? BRIAN MARVEL: They are incrementally increasing. We have done an exceptional job of making sure that we are responding to emergencies and priority one calls. We prioritize every call that comes into communication, and the priority three or four calls which are usually quality-of-life calls, sometimes we don't get to them at all. TOM FUDGE: What do you see is the solution to hiring and retaining more officers? Is it just paying the more? BRIAN MARVEL: It winds up being total compensation, but I think we have been going through this for such a long time, that I think the city needs to maybe take a look at reopening our contract, sitting with us and working over the next three years on how we can bring compensation up to the medium. There have to be actionable items that we see that the city takes public safety seriously, and we will implement those over the next couple of years. TOM FUDGE: I mentioned that San Diego has a relatively small please force compared to other big cities. Do you see that continuing, and is that something you are satisfied with? BRIAN MARVEL: I can't sit and say that I'm satisfied with the level of artificers we're at now. It would be nice to get to 2100 officers that we had in the past. We currently have a five-year plan that the city council has approved, it's a $60 million investment in our department. That will be fully done by 2018, and that really addresses recruiting and equipment issues for our department, where we are trying to deal with compensation. I think what we're really looking for is to get up to that 2100 number, and then maybe going out to the community and having a good discussion on what kind of police force they want to have for the city of San Diego. Right now we believe that this dangerously low for citizens and officers. TOM FUDGE: Finally, with regard to the budget, that means the budget has to be increased beyond what Jerry Sanders was able to do. BRIAN MARVEL: Absolutely. The city is turning a corner financially. We have been told that there will be surpluses down the road. There are a variety of issues facing our city, public safety is one and infrastructure is another. We're hoping we can have a good dialogue with the Mayor and the city council to make sure that public safety is the number one priority along with the info structure that needs to be done. TOM FUDGE: We will have to leave it at that. Thank you for coming in. BRIAN MARVEL: Thank you for having me.
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."