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Police Association, Mayor remain at odds over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

As the city's mandatory deadline for its employees to receive at least the first COVID-19 vaccination arrives Wednesday, Mayor Todd Gloria disagreed with a San Diego Police Officers Association claim that the police department is "alarmingly" understaffed, instead attributing slow response times to increased volume of calls.

Police Association, Mayor remain at odds over COVID-19 vaccine mandate
Listen to this story by Kitty Alvarado.

The SDPOA released a statement on Tuesday blaming staffing shortages for delayed response time, citing Halloween night specifically.


"An incident involving a motorist driving on the sidewalk in Hillcrest sparked conversation of a two-hour response time from SDPD," a statement from the association read. "Due to alarmingly low staffing levels citywide, officers were unable to quickly respond to 911 calls on Halloween evening."

The union and city have good communication about the policy, president of the Police Officers Association Jack Schaeffer said.

"The city has told us repeatedly that their goal is not to have to terminate people," he said. "And so my understanding is that as long as they’re getting that shot sometime before Dec. 2, we should be in an OK place."

Neither the union nor the police department could say how many of the 1,900 officers are vaccinated. But a recent survey released by the police officer’s association or union showed more than 300 of their officers would rather be fired than comply.

"Some people are going to you know having to make probably the toughest decision of their careers," Schaeffer said.


The police union encourages vaccination but doesn't believe it should be mandated, Schaeffer said. He worries the city will lose a lot of good cops, who have experience that can’t be replaced by costly new hires.

"Two hundred people leaving, it would probably take a decade for us to catch up to that to just get to where we’re at now and where we’re at now is lower than what we should be," Schaeffer said.

What weighs more heavily on him is that this exodus will be bad for San Diegans, the people who visit and put officers at risk, as staffing levels are already low, he said.

"You just have to do the math it’s going to be harder for us to do the job," Schaeffer said. "My biggest fear is that you know we have to have enough officers to do things safely … because I really do feel that a significant number of people by the time this is all said and done will be gone."

In a statement, Mayor Todd Gloria told KPBS that the police department is not short staffed.

"Rather than a lack of adequate staffing, delays in responding to 911 calls were due to an increased volume of emergency calls," he said. "The amount of emergency calls on Sunday, November 14, 2021 alone increased by nearly 90% when compared to the year before."

"We're going to do everything we can to retain the valuable members of our organization, but if folks choose to go somewhere else, we'll do our level best to recruit topflight, high first-class talent," Gloria said at the time.

"Of those 141 recruits, 26 are women and more than 68% are people of color," he said. "I'm proud of our diverse recruitment efforts and remain committed to increasing diversity in all areas of the city."

The fire department is also struggling with staffing shortages and Chief Colin Stowel said that about 12% of the staff is unvaccinated.

In September, the city announced all employees would have to be vaccinated for COVID-19, barring religious or medical exemptions. The deadline to show proof of full vaccination is Dec. 1.

SDPD Chief David Nisleit said the possibility of losing officers due to vaccine mandates was an issue.

"That's concerning, the possible impacts of if we were to lose officers, you look at this police department, our ratio of officers to citizens is second-lowest in this nation, so obviously that impacts our ability to respond to crime," he said.

In June the City Council unanimously voted to pass Gloria's roughly $4.6 billion proposed budget, an increase of more than $537 million — or 13.4% — over last year's spending plan. A not-insignificant $23 million increase to the San Diego Police Department's budget was made despite calls asking the council to defund the SDPD's overtime allocation by at least $10 million.

Much of the police budget increase is part of non-discretionary spending such as pensions, over which Gloria has little say, according to city officials. The budget cuts police overtime by $4 million.

The city has increased the SDPD's budget for the last 10 years, an increase of more than $200 million since 2011.

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