SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Police Department is still losing more officers each month than it can replace, despite an increase in benefits last year that officials hoped would reduce departures.
The improved compensation package put more money in paychecks starting in July but has had little effect on officer retention, according to police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
“We’re not seeing the results we hoped for,” Zimmerman said in a recent interview.
An average of 13 officers have quit or retired each month so far in the current fiscal year. That has left the department with 1,874 officers as of March 9 – 162 short of its 2,036 budgeted sworn positions.
The average attrition rate of 13 officers a month was the same in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. It had dropped to 11 early last year before rising again. In 2010, the attrition rate was about five per month.
“We are hiring positions, but we are losing positions quicker than we can hire them. If nobody left, we would be fine,indicating.” the chief recently told City Council members sitting as the budget committee.
She said they are leaving for a variety of reasons, including pay, morale, workload and “the climate of what’s going on, the national dialog of what’s going on.”
“Many (news) stories across the country are painting police in a negative light,” Zimmerman said.
Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, agreed.
“It’s easy to say something negative about a police department,” Marvel said. “It’s harder to say what can be done. People are running around saying the cops are bad. Who wants to be a cop?”
The city has hired 135 officers since the start of the current fiscal year in July, including 44 in the police academy class that started on Monday. Of 110 officers who have left the department in that period, at least 19 hired on with other law agencies, Zimmerman said.
In fiscal year 2015, 171 officers were hired and 153 left, with 21 designating that they had gone to other police agencies. In fiscal year 2014, 160 officers were hired and 162 left, at least 17 to other agencies.
The police officers’ union puts the figures much higher for those taking new policing jobs.
At the budget meeting, Councilman Todd Gloria expressed concern at the continued exodus, saying the city should perhaps revisit the issue if things don’t change. “I’m sure no one is more disappointed than you, chief, about where we’re at,” Gloria said.
Zimmerman said the new contract “was very helpful … We would have been in worse shape than we are right now.”
San Diego police had been near the bottom of the pay scale compared to 18 other large agencies in California. Increased benefits approved last year, such as a bigger uniform allowance, additional holiday pay and lower health insurance contributions, were expected to put San Diego closer to the midpoint of those other agencies.
The greatest benefits were reserved for officers who had at least eight years’ experience, in hopes of keeping on those with more skills, street sense and knowledge of the city.
Base pay for San Diego police officers right out of the academy is $4,119 a month, compared to $4,687 for sheriff’s deputies, $5,488 for Chula Vista police and $4,547 in Escondido, according to each agencies’ website. District Attorney’s investigators’ base pay is $5,823, according to a county human resources website.
The five-year contract San Diego police signed last summer includes 3.3 percent pay raises in 2018 and 2019.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore refuted what he called local “lore” that his agency lures away a large number of San Diego police officers. In fiscal year 2014 there were five sheriff’s hires from San Diego police, 14 in 2015, and two so far this year.
Marvel acknowledge that the drain of officers to become deputies has tapered off, but noted there are still many departures.
“Now, younger officers are going to Chula Vista, Escondido, Las Vegas or San Francisco,” Marvel said. “The average time on the department of officers who are leaving is 6.2 years. I want to analyze who’s leaving, where they are going and what we can do inside the contract or outside of it to incentivize people to come here.
“What are other agencies offering that we aren’t?”
In their exit paperwork, 46 San Diego officers who left this past year noted the reason as unspecified “miscellaneous,” while 40 cited retirement, five noted medical retirement and 19 specified they were going to another law agency, Zimmerman said.
Any number of those who cited retirement might also have continued a law enforcement career elsewhere.
“A lot of officers come and talk to me before they leave,” she said. “Lately I’ve been hearing they liked working for our Police Department. Some are leaving for economic reasons; (or) they’re leaving the profession altogether, because of the continual negative atmosphere they’re hearing from the community.”
Marvel said the department needs 5,000 recruit applicants to find 200 qualified for one of the four annual academy classes, but the number of applicants last year fell short by 1,200.
“How do we develop the ability to recruit people born and raised in San Diego?” Marvel asked, saying such people may be less likely to want to live and work somewhere else. He said it will be important to analyze whether San Diego is competitive in pay and benefits for recruits.
Zimmerman said she attends many community meetings and events, where she emphasizes the positive side of the San Diego Police Department as a place to work with the public to improve neighborhoods and relationships. Marvel said he, too, views direct contact with community members as the best recruiting tool, through word-of-mouth.
Even if every academy recruit is hired and passes field training, that won’t fill every budgeted empty slot.
The city has had trouble hiring enough officers for several years now. The city’s independent budget analyst issued a report in the fall of 2014 saying that since 2010, the Police Department had lost a significant number of budgeted positions: 280 full-time sworn and civilian slots.
A hiring freeze with no new recruits accepted into academies also took its toll.
A five-year plan developed in 2013 included a goal of returning to the 2009 budgeted level of 2,128 officers.
“We’ve had years of not hiring, years of cuts or years of only hiring in small numbers not keeping up with attrition,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a competitive market for police officers. Fewer people are applying. If we can’t retain our officers, we can’t hire our way out of our problem.”
By contrast, Gore said his agency has little trouble finding new hires to replace deputies who leave.
“We try to stay right at even with the number authorized,” he said.
His department has 2,586 sworn personnel, slightly above the 2,573 budgeted for the year. Sheriff’s personnel Capt. Anthony Ray said if all 26 deputies graduate from the academy in six months, they will not quite cover the number of departures expected by then.
The Sheriff’s Department hired 196 sworn personnel and 149 left in fiscal year 2015. There was a hiring boom of 320 deputies in fiscal year 2014 when an expanded Las Colinas women’s jail opened, and 164 departures. Average attrition was 12 deputies a month last year, and 14 in 2014.