San Diego police response to homelessness gets renewed scrutiny amid staffing shortages
Speaker 1: (00:00)
The San Diego police department is sounding the alarm over staffing issues, citing recruitment problems, impending retirements, and the city's vaccine mandate as key reasons behind the increasing vacancies, despite that the growing shortage of officers has others questioning the significant role that police play in interactions with the homeless and how might also be stretching the resources of the department. Then joining me now with more is KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen, Andrew, welcome back to the program.
Speaker 2: (00:29)
Hi Jade. Thanks. So what's
Speaker 1: (00:31)
The police department saying about why there are so many vacancies? Well,
Speaker 2: (00:35)
I think we should keep in mind what's going on in the entire economy right now. We're calling it the great resignation. So more and more people are quitting jobs that they're not happy in. And employers are then struggling to backfill those positions with new hires it's happening all across the economy. And I think, you know, of course police departments are not immune to those factors. The city's vaccine mandate that does appear to play some role in this. Uh, I think it's impossible to say exact actually how big of a role it's playing given the larger economic context right now. But we do know that the police union tried to fight this vaccine mandate, even though it ultimately got passed by the city council, but, you know, officers appear more resistant to that policy at least compared with other city employees. And then beyond those economic forces beyond the vaccine mandate, this police department that we have is also relatively old. There are hundreds of officers that are eligible for retirement in the coming years. And as those retirements are sort of trickling in, um, that's of course then just pushing extra pressure on the police department, staffing challenges,
Speaker 1: (01:37)
Much of the current issues surrounding the shortages have been attributed to the city's vaccine mandate. Well, that's a fairly new policy. The department's retention issues are old. Uh, what can you tell us about that?
Speaker 2: (01:49)
So police recruitment and retention was a really big topic in the early to mid 2010s. And so it got to a point where the wages that the police department was offering were just very far behind other agencies in this area. So it was very easy to get hired by the San Diego police department gain a couple of years experience and then switch to say the Sheriff's department or Chula Vista police, or LA Mesa Escondido, any of these other neighboring, uh, cities where they're offering better pay and benefits to their officers. So, um, the city and the police union agreed to a series of raises in 2017 that had a significant impact on the recruitment and retention issues. The number of officers employed by the city had been increasing for several years, pretty much since then, but now given all these other factors that we've talked about, it appears to be backlighting.
Speaker 1: (02:39)
The staffing shortage is also having an impact on police department spending what's happening there.
Speaker 2: (02:45)
Police are having to authorize more and more hours of overtime for officers to cover their staffing shortages. So the current estimate is that they're going to spend 6.9 million more on overtime than what they had budgeted for. And this is coming after mayor Todd Gloria had actually cut the overtime budget in the police department as a gesture to activists that wanted to spend less on police and more on social programs like libraries and parks. Um, I reported back in December, how that gesture of cutting the police department over budget really fell apart in a matter of just a few months. And now we're looking at ending the fiscal year. Again, like I said, about 7 million over budget on a police officer over time, you know,
Speaker 1: (03:29)
News of these shortages has really revived an ongoing debate also about what role the police play in complaints related to homelessness. Can you give us a sense of how these issues are connected
Speaker 2: (03:41)
For several years now, the police have been given more and more responsibilities related to homelessness. So if we go back to 2017, when San Diego was dealing with this hepatitis a outbreak, which primarily hit the homeless population, then mayor Kevin Faulkner wanted to prove that he was doing something about this problem. So the police have been playing a larger role in the homeless encampment, sweeps, providing security. And then, you know, as part of this whole response to the challenges with homelessness Faulkner also created the neighborhood policing division and its responsibilities have grown significantly, especially now that people can report issues related homelessness on the city's get it done app. So in the same way, you can report a pothole or graffiti on public property. You can report something related to homelessness and every report has to get followed up on, even if there is no crime being committed. So somebody might report a homeless person hanging out in my neighborhood or in this park or in front of this business. And they just want that person to go away. Our city's response is we send a police officer there to deal with it.
Speaker 1: (04:44)
Has there been any discussion among local lawmakers about how resources should be shifted to better accommodate issues involving the city's homeless population?
Speaker 2: (04:53)
Well, I came across this story watching last week's city council budget committee, uh, hearing and council president Sean E LA Rivera was asking some of these very questions. He's saying, if we're facing a rise in 9 1, 1 calls a rise in violent crime, and also these staffing shortages can some of these calls about homelessness be handled by civilians. Why not restructure the San Diego police department and shift some of these positions from the neighborhood policing division to where officers are most needed with the patrol divisions and things that are actually handling this rise in violent crime. In an interview, uh, with the council president, he also noted there's pretty much universal agreement on the left and on the right and the center that police are just not the best people equipped to handle homelessness. There are social workers, people especially trained in mental health or, or addiction who might be more effective at reaching that unsheltered population and handling these calls. It's not to say police will never be needed, but he's saying, I think that we should look for ways to reduce the police role in managing the homeless crisis as much as possible so that they can get to the job that they were really hired for, which is responding to violence and crime.
Speaker 1: (06:04)
To that point. Do the police have much say in whether or not they respond to calls involving the homeless? I mean, are people generally aware of the alternatives out there?
Speaker 2: (06:13)
It's ultimately the police chief's decision to assign, you know, officers where the, the policy makers have set their priorities. We do have, what's called the psychiatric emergency response team, which is funded by the county. Uh, these are clinicians that are deployed to mental health calls. So in those cases, there's a clinician who would make first contact with that individual rather than a police officer. So there's per teams, but they're always accompanied by police officers. So increasing the use of the psychiatric emergency response teams, isn't necessarily going to relieve the staffing concerns in the police department. We also have just recently created new mobile crisis response teams. And these are unarmed civilians who are responding to calls typical related to homelessness, but they're not accompanied by police. And so that is one sort of area where I think the city and the county together are trying to invest some dollars and see if there's a different model that works. But there was some interesting comments from police chief David Nite in last week's meeting, where he kind of dismissed these new teams that don't have any police going along with them as a, a solution to this. And he really pushed the PERT model, which does use police and, you know, increasing those wouldn't necessarily be relieving his officers from any of their other duties. I've been
Speaker 1: (07:29)
Speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, Andrew, thank you very much for joining us.
Speaker 2: (07:34)
My pleasure Jade.
The San Diego Police Department's overtime spending is expected to end the fiscal year $6.9 million over budget, according to a recent budget monitoring report. The department says it is also facing new staffing shortages, possibly linked to resignations in the wake of the city's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
In light of those trends, some local policymakers are reviving a perennial debate in San Diego over what role police officers should play in managing the homelessness crisis.
SDPD's Neighborhood Policing Division "is regularly called upon to focus the majority of its efforts on homelessness," Police Chief David Nisleit told the City Council's budget committee Wednesday. The division has a budget of $27.9 million, and responded to more than 13,000 complaints about homelessness made through the city's Get It Done app between July and November 2021.
RELATED: Cuts to San Diego police overtime budget quickly evaporate
"The Neighborhood Policing Division's goal is to be a conduit connecting homeless individuals within the community to the available resources and services throughout the city," Nisleit said.
But some council members are unconvinced that the police are the best people to be that conduit, or that police presence is necessary at every call or complaint related to homelessness.
City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he is struck by how often police officers are sent to a situation related to homelessness where no crime is being committed. The city should have a way of assessing whether a situation's risk of violence is low enough to be handled by unarmed civilians, he said.
"Let's free (police officers) up to do the work that they are tasked with — which is, again, more than they should be tasked with," Elo-Rivera said in an interview with KPBS. "To me, that would be a way of expanding overall capacity without necessarily increasing the size of the force."
Still, Elo-Rivera said he needs more information before he would support reassigning officers in the Neighborhood Policing Division to other duties.
San Diego does have access to a new, county-funded "mobile crisis response team" of unarmed behavioral health experts that gets sent to mental health, drug or alcohol related emergencies. But Nisleit said the team is too small to provide any meaningful relief to the demands on sworn officers.
The county also has "psychiatric emergency response teams" that provide first contact with people in a mental health crisis. But those teams are always accompanied by police, so expanding their use would not necessarily free up more officers to backfill patrol vacancies or respond to the growth in calls for service.
RELATED: City-led cleanup operation of homeless encampment in Midway begins
"The bottom line is there is nobody else right now to address those types of concerns," Nisleit said.
Police are required to accompany staff from the city's Environmental Services Department when crews are sent to clean up or clear homeless encampments. Nisleit said the police presence provides security, but did not say how often those operations result in violence.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer ramped up the cleaning and clearing of homeless encampments in the wake of the 2017 Hepatitis A outbreak. The program, called CleanSD, has continued under Mayor Todd Gloria, although Gloria's current budget aims to reduce police overtime spending on the program by $1 million.