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San Diego Police Officers Association says they are losing good, experienced officers over pay, vaccine mandates and staffing issues. Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco says, since agencies put vaccine mandates in place, they are reaping the rewards.

Losses for San Diego’s law enforcement agencies are gains for one to the north

Deputy Darnell Calhoun is one of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s new hires. And while he’s still learning the ropes in his new job, he comes with three years of experience in law enforcement from another department that is considered top notch – the San Diego Police Department.

Calhoun told KPBS he loved his colleagues in San Diego and already knew the city well, but then things started to change.

“A lot of people started to leave due to a lot of the vaccination status that I won’t really get into,” he said. “It took a hard hit on my station.”

That hard hit meant an increased workload for Calhoun, who is vaccinated. The additional work is one of the reasons Calhoun said he left SDPD, even though it meant a pay cut. Morale is another.

“Morale feels really good here,” Calhoun said. “Morale in San Diego, yeah, it was touch and go.”

And that, he said. is a problem when you’re doing an already dangerous job. “It’s rough. That’s not something I wish on anyone,” he said.

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Kitty Alvarado
Photo of Deputy Darnell Calhoun (left) and Deputy Diana Mendoza (right) taken at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Lake Elsinore Station on March 10, 2022

Impact on the force

San Diego Police Officers Association President Jared Wilson said the increased workload is a common problem, because the force that should number 2,000 is down to 1,700 available for patrol.

“There is essentially unlimited overtime for officers to work right now, but they’re burnt out, and we’ve got a lot of positions that are unfilled,” Wilson said.

RELATED: Hundreds of San Diego City workers get vaccine exemptions, some still face termination

He said it’s the result of a combination of factors including retirements and resignations to take other jobs. “Our officers are hot commodities,” he said.

Wilson said the City of San Diego’s vaccine mandate was another factor. “This isn’t just about the vaccine mandate. That is the number one thing that pushed people out the door, but we also have vaccinated officers leaving now because they’re underpaid and overworked,” he said.

He says this is having an impact on crime. Homicide rates are up 80 percent this year so far. “I have never seen homicide sky rocket this quickly — this fast, in just the first two months of this year, certainly not in my 15 years as a police officer,” Wilson said. And he noted response times are getting longer. “A Priority One call, which is something like a burglary in progress, violent attack in progress, assault or fight in progress, those response times are an excess of 30 minutes to get a police officer to you,” he said.

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Kitty Alvarado
Photo of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Lake Elsinore Station taken on March 10, 2022

Officers heading north

“I feel very, very bad for the other agencies,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco told KPBS.

He said his department is reaping the rewards of officers leaving large city forces like SDPD. Last year, he said, they hired fewer than 20 officers from other departments. This year, he already has more than 60 in some stage of the hiring process. Nearly 20 of them are from San Diego County agencies – already trained and ready to hit the streets.

“We are just overwhelmed at the level of expertise and training that we’re getting,” Bianco said. “We have SWAT team members, we have K-9s that are coming over, we have aviation people that are coming over.”

The Riverside County Sheriff’s department does not mandate vaccines. But Bianco said the background checks are still rigorous, and he won’t hire officers with a history of disciplinary issues. But he said so far, the ones applying are as good as they get.

RELATED: New Interim San Diego County Sheriff is selected

“We are finding stellar employees from these other agencies that are leaving simply because of the vaccine mandate at their agency and quite frankly we’re getting a huge reward,” Bianco said. He also said even with the transfers, his department is breaking even and is looking to hire 450 more deputies.

Stopping the hemorrhage

A recent analysis by the San Diego Union-Tribune found both SDPD and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department are losing officers faster than they can hire them.

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Kitty Alvarado
Photo of Deputy Darnell Calhoun and Deputy Diana Mendoza taken at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Lake Elsinore Station on March 10, 2022

SDPOA President Jared Wilson said it costs the city of San Diego around $200,000 to hire and train a new officer. And those leaving are taking something with them that is priceless – experience. “It’s irreplaceable. The officers don't know the communities like they used to, and if you want to do community policing you really need officers who we retain and stay in the communities that they serve,” he said.

Wilson said he hopes a more competitive contract will stop the hemorrhaging and attract good officers.

As for New Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Darnell Calhoun: He said he’s glad to work closer to his home in Lake Elsinore and not have to commute 90 minutes one way. But he said San Diego could have done more to keep officers in its ranks. “I mean obviously if you bump up everyone’s pay a little bit more, if you pay into their retirement a little bit more, things like that, that would go a long way as well,” he said.

As a general assignment reporter for KPBS, I'm passionate about stories that bring people together and improve people's lives. I look forward to meeting you and sharing your story.