A little digging will quickly reveal that the San Diego Police Department has seen better days.
We’re struggling to keep the officers we have and attract new ones. We’re working with a communications system that uses software from the 1970s. We’re forced to leave some areas of the city without police coverage at times.
So it’s troubling to see two local journalists mislead readers by publishing narrow views of the department’s five-year budget and rebuilding plan. U-T San Diego’s Matthew Hall and the Voice of San Diego’s Keegan Kyle recently described the plan as “disturbing” and “flawed,” respectively.
Their conclusions are false. We’re writing to give people an accurate picture of the department.
Back in May, in a Voice of San Diego guest editorial, we explained that years of staffing cuts throughout the department have created the following conditions: an increase in emergency response times, unmanageable caseloads for detectives and a lack of supervision and employee development, as well as a reduction in proactive policing and services.
Also in May, the city’s Independent Budget Analyst released a report providing an overview of the staffing challenges the department faces.
Two months later, on July 18, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and Assistant Chief Shelley Zimmerman presented the police department’s five-year plan to the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.
In addition to focusing on rebuilding the department after years of budget cuts, the report details the quality of police services by looking at measures of efficiency and effectiveness. According to the report, “measures of efficiency for police officer agencies include crime rates; response times … the number of sworn and civilian personnel; available proactive time; and, the cost to operate the department.”
In their articles, Hall and Kyle mostly focused on crime rates and neither mentioned the IBA’s report. It noted that within the last two years the department has reduced its budgeted sworn staff by 158 officers and its civilian staff by 193 positions to help close the city’s budget gap.
“At the time of the proposed budgetary reductions, concerns were raised regarding the impact of civilian reductions on administrative and case back-log, police response times, overtime, permit and licensing revenue, and the operational impact of taking sworn officers off patrol to perform duties previously done by civilians at a lower cost,” the IBA’s report says. “After the adoption of the staffing reductions, the Police Department reassigned (some) sworn officers to those duties once performed by civilian employees, while at the same time making every effort to mitigate the service impacts relating to reduced patrol assignments.”
Due to the elimination of 88 civilians, a loss of officers and a hiring freeze, the chief was forced to reorganize the department. The reorganization included the reduction or elimination of specialized units such as mounted, harbor, canine, DUI patrols, narcotic teams and regional task forces.
Here are some additional points Kyle’s story and Hall’s column left out:
• Emergency response times, across the board, are up.
• There are times when areas of the city are left with no police coverage when resources are shifted to respond to priority calls.
• The department does less preventative policing than it used to.
• Last year, the canine unit responded to about 1,200 fewer calls than it did in the previous year, and the department’s helicopters, which are able to quickly track down suspects, flew about 1,000 fewer hours. Neither unit has been fully restored.
• The department has eliminated almost every police service officer and investigative aide, meaning supporting personnel for officers and detectives has been all but eliminated.
• Dozens of San Diego Police officers are being recruited by numerous law enforcement agencies and private businesses.
• Overall, 1,402 officers left the department in the last 10 years and 1,072 were hired — a deficit of 330.
• You can’t just flip a switch and stock the department with 100 more officers. It takes years for an officer to develop the skill set and expertise needed to work certain specialty departments like gangs, sex crimes and homicide.
• The department’s communications system — which fields 911 calls and dispatches officers — is almost 25 years old and uses technology from the 1970s. It’s prone to failure.
Crime was up again in June, meaning it has been up for six straight months. With crime rising to levels typically seen in previous years, combined with an inability to quickly shift officers due to reduced staffing, it is easy to understand why Chief Lansdowne told the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, “It’s starting to get away from us a little bit.”
Chief Lansdowne’s five-year proposal is essentially a return to prior staffing that was in place between 2007 and 2010, but Hall compared the request to the underfunding of the city’s pension system. Yes, the same underfunding that led to federal investigations, sweeping financial reforms at City Hall and the infamous “Enron by the Sea” label.
Hall’s column notes that 270 officers left for other police agencies between 2002 and 2012. Dozens of other officers should be included in that figure but aren’t because they didn’t admit in writing to taking a position with another department when resigning.
Three years ago, police officers took compensation cuts between 6 and 12 percent. No raises have been awarded in any subsequent contracts and take-home pay has been cut every year because of increased medical and pension contributions. The majority of officers contribute between 20 and 25 percent of their salaries, on average, toward pension and health care costs. No other law enforcement agency in Southern California comes close to the out-of-pocket expenses SDPD officers absorb, and it is the main reason why we cannot successfully recruit and retain officers.
Officers now have Proposition B to look forward to. If implemented, it would freeze every officer’s pensionable pay until 2018.
Several of SDPD’s best detectives have left the department to join the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office as investigators. Many more are in the hiring process with the DA’s Office and other law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which plans to hire 1,200 deputies in the next few years. Sheriff Bill Gore has said he will take as many SDPD officers as he can get his hands on.
Not much foresight is needed to know what is coming if significant changes are not made. The main question the San Diego Police Officers Association has is whether recruiting, processing and training officers — it costs about $145,000 to train an officer in his/her initial year — is prudent when it is unlikely they will remain with the department because the lure of better pay and benefits at neighboring agencies.
So what is the answer? It starts with implementing the five-year plan and making public safety a priority again.
Make no mistake, this crisis is real. We welcome a vigorous debate in the coming months, one that reflects an accurate picture of the department and its impact in the community.
Brian Marvel is president of the San Diego Police Officers Association and Jeff Jordon is vice president.
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