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Families of San Diego police officers will have first child care program of its kind in the US

The San Diego City Council has approved a project that will be the first of its kind in the country: A child care center for police officers' families. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado has details.

For the last several years the San Diego Police Department has struggled with retaining officers and attracting new ones. According to 2022 department figures, 20 police officers are leaving the force every month. Replacing them costs the city almost $4 million in onboarding expenses alone.

Lt. Brian Avera is a 16-year veteran of the department, and the director of the San Diego Police Officers Association. He said child care plays a big role in that equation. He said the POA came up with an idea after a troubling phone call: "Our child care project really originated with a phone call with one of our members that needed help with child care and we heard that and we actually wanted to do something about it."

That officer’s phone call, saying they could no longer afford to work for the department because of child care, opened the floodgates. A recent SDPOA survey showed 21% of police officers were thinking about leaving the department over child care issues. And 59% had to leave or miss work because of child care problems.

"Once we started talking about it, we had a lot of officers reach out and ask us for assistance. And that’s really what caused us, as I like to say, [to] put one foot in front of the other through this difficult project and get to where we are four years later," said Avera.

Where they are four years later is a partnership with Kindercare, to develop a first in the nation program specifically to address child care issues in police officers' families.

The day care center will offer special hours allowing for shifts during holidays, emergencies and disasters.

The goal: to attract and retain a talented and diverse police force.

It got unanimous approval from the San Diego City Council for the lease agreement and a $3 million state grant received with the help of State Senate President pro tem Toni Atkins.

"We were very happy to see that this passed unanimously," said Avera.

District 6 council member Chris Cate is also pleased with the passage. "This is definitely a win-win solution ... What we’re hearing from police officers every single day is that, because of their odd hours, it’s difficult for them to find suitable child care to keep San Diego safe," Cate said, adding that the child care center will be developed in an existing building in Kearny Mesa.

Cate also said while no city money is being used for this project now, this is something future city council members might consider, when the money runs out in five years. "These are all creative solutions that we need to try to implement to address our officers shortage," he said, "and so if it would take a minimal investment from the city to allow for that, I think it's something that the mayor and the city should consider if that time comes."

Avera said the SDPOA plans to fund the program once the grant money runs out in five years through their fundraising campaigns. He said officers are already hoping to get their children into this center that still needs $1 million worth of renovations. "I’m getting contacted by every means available by members of our police department and saying, 'Please, please get me on that list!'" he said.

Avera said Kindercare is also providing funding, and the hope is this program will be a model for other first responder child care centers across the country.