Police union head: Retention a problem

Kathryn Nance Stockton

STOCKTON — The president of the union that represents Stockton police officers has joined the chorus of those voicing deep concern over staffing levels at the undermanned department.

Kathryn Nance, who heads the Stockton Police Officers’ Association, says the department has a serious “retention issue,” echoing strong concerns voiced earlier this month by Police Chief Eric Jones.

“We do not have a hiring issue,” said Nance, a sergeant with the department who also is running for congress against Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton. “We have hired an extraordinary number of people. It’s not a hiring issue. It’s a retention issue.”

The struggle to increase police staffing has become a mounting issue as time has passed since the voter-approved Measure A public-safety sales tax took effect more than 22 months ago.

The tax was supposed to pay for 120 new officers over three years, but gains have been slow because the rate of hiring has only narrowly outpaced the number of retirements, resignations and departures for other law enforcement agencies.

Nance said she agrees with Jones that the biggest impediments to increasing police staffing are salaries and benefits that are uncompetitive with those offered by other nearby agencies.

Jones called the steady rate of departures by experienced officers “alarming” earlier this month. But he was not publicly specific about how the problem could be addressed in financially challenged Stockton. City Manager Kurt Wilson, meanwhile, directly cited the “challenge” of addressing below-market police compensation amid Stockton’s post-bankruptcy fiscal stringency.

In her comments Friday, Nance acknowledged the city’s financial constraints. But she did propose one solution: improving the medical benefits offered to officers and their families.

Nance said the department currently offers only two insurance plans to police, both of which have high deductibles that can take a big bite out of a family’s budget in the event of a major illness or injury.

“We have pretty much, as of now, the worst medical that’s out there,” Nance said. “We need to expand the options for medical for employees so they can choose the option and it’s going to be something they can afford for their families.”

Offering officers health insurance in the 2016-17 fiscal year that includes a low copayment plan rather than high deductibles could be a start toward stemming the tide of exit interviews, Nance said, adding that doing so would not solve the entire retention issue.

“That could help some,” Nance said. “But I don’t think there is one solution for everything. You have to look at compensation and make sure we’re on the road to a competitive pay rate as compared to local jurisdictions.”

According to Stockton’s website, monthly salaries for police officers range from $5,069 to $6,513. In Lodi, the range is $5,295 to $6,436, according to that city’s data. The Manteca website lists a monthly range from $6,348 to $7,719. Nance said nearby departments also offer better medical-insurance benefits than Stockton.

One issue not driving officers away from the force is morale, according to Nance, who said Jones has strong support among the rank-and-file.

“(Morale is) the best I’ve ever seen it since I’ve been here in 19 years,” she said. “Some of the hard times brought us closer together as an agency.”

The department reached a high of 441 officers before bankruptcy but ultimately bottomed out at 320. Policing experts have estimated that 300,000-resident Stockton ideally would have about 600 officers.

The department had 352 of 365 budgeted officer positions filled when Measure A took effect April 1, 2014. It has 393 today, two fewer than a week ago following the resignations in recent days of two probationary officers.

The department is supposed to return to 395 officers this week with the swearing in of two newcomers Tuesday, but Jones has said he is aware of five veteran officers who soon may leave for other agencies.

For the Stockton Police Department to meet Measure A’s original goals, it would have to reach 445 officers by this June 30 and 485 officers on June 30, 2017. To reach those goals would require monthly net gains of 12.5 officers for the rest of this fiscal year followed by monthly net gains of 3.3 officers throughout 2016-17.

It wasn’t always this way. Jones said last week Stockton once was a “destination” department. Nance says she could “maybe name five officers who left for other agencies” during her first 14 years with the department.

It’s unclear whether Stockton can be a destination again. But Jones acknowledged earlier this month he is concerned Stockton could become a “training ground” for other departments. Nance shares the concern.

“Lots of organizations are hiring,” she said. “We’re competing with a lot of different places. Stockton has unique characteristics of being a very busy city with a very high crime rate. Officers face a variety of situations here. That makes them a commodity.”

— Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or rphillips@recordnet.com. Follow him atrecordnet.com/phillipsblog and on Twitter @rphillipsblog.