San Diego, known for attracting tourists with warm weather and sandy beaches, is becoming quite proficient in luring another group of temporary denizens – police officers.

As recruits file into the city’s academy, nearby police agencies chomp at the bit for a chance to court an officer reared in an urban department. San Diego cops’ reputation precedes them: they’ve been seasoned in a big-city environment where they earn farm-league pay.

With fewer and fewer young men and women pursuing careers in law enforcement and the department’s many Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, nationwide trends are hitting home in San Diego. But the city of San Diego is also working at a competitive disadvantage, as its officers – rookies and veterans alike – are being tapped to serve in local agencies that offer better pay and benefits.

“The good truth is that everyone wants a San Diego cop, because they’re the best trained and most experienced,” said Bill Maheu, the city’s executive assistant chief for police operations. “But there is some truth to what they’re saying, that other departments are cherry-picking.”

The flight of police officers from San Diego demonstrates one of the most visible detriments of the city’s ongoing financial squeeze, which is highlighted by a $1.4 billion pension deficit that has hogged recent city budgets.

As a result of the increased pension costs, police officers and other municipal employees are paying a larger share of their retirement costs than they have in years past. Rising health care premiums have also reduced take-home pay for officers. Departments that pick up a larger share of an officer’s pension and health care tabs are looking rosier.

“It’s an issue of pay and benefits,” said David Rowlands, the city manager of Chula Vista, which has hired away six officers from San Diego in the past six months. “We pay our officers more money and we pay all the costs of health insurance and retirement. The city of San Diego does neither of those things.”

Maheu said 15 to 22 officers leave the force for a police job elsewhere in a normal year. More than 60 have left for other agencies since the fiscal year began July 1, he said.

Just Friday, 10 officers left San Diego to start jobs with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. The cops union, which has been heavily critical of the city’s contract offers, projects that another 20 will be hired away by the end of June.

Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council are wrestling with the steady exodus of officers, who have recently been leaving the city at a clip of 30 per month. Sanders announced earlier this month a plan to have a recruitment and retention program for police officers ready for release next month.

Like other law enforcement agencies, the bulk of the city’s departures are attributable to retirement. But officials say they are worried they are worried that the city’s salaries and recruiting problems lag at a time when they are forced to choose from an ever-thinning pool of qualified applicants.

According to a survey on policepay.net, San Diego offers the lowest base pay for a first-year officer of any of the 46 California cities listed. A rookie cop can make $43,597 per year in San Diego. The same position pays $60,882 in Chula Vista, $57,492 in Anaheim, $49,961 in Escondido, and $49,961 in Oceanside, the survey said.

The city plans on hiring another 80 officers that complete academy work this year, but that addition will be outweighed by the nearly 220 cops that are budgeted to leave next year.

“We’ve got to do everything we can,” Councilman Jim Madaffer said. “Right now we’re giving them lumps of coal in their stockings and they need to know we want them here.”

The Police Officers Association, the cops’ union, has become increasingly vocal in the flight of officers, airing television commercials that explicitly attempt to tie the current situation to a degradation of safety on San Diego streets. The union and city leaders have for two straight years been unable to agree on a labor contract, an impasse that allows the city to impose benefit and salary levels upon them for one year at a time.

The union hounded Sanders, a former police chief, to reverse his hold-the-line stance on salaries, to no avail. No love has been lost between the POA and city, as the two are also engaged in a series of lawsuits that demand the city pay officers for overtime that wasn’t collected.

When the City Council adopts a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year on Tuesday, it will likely include more funding for police than what Sanders contemplated in his original budget proposal in April, but critics such as Madaffer say the budget doesn’t go far enough to stop the hemorrhaging.

“I’m going to have a hard time supporting this budget without addressing the officer retention problems we have,” the councilman said.

Madaffer argues that the city essentially lost almost $30 million this year if the experience of the cops that left were measured in dollars. Because the city invests about $560,000 in training costs and salary for every five-year veteran, the departure of over 50 officers represents a substantial loss for taxpayers who have paid the cost of a cop’s formative years, only to see them plucked by other agencies.

However, this is the first budget in recent years that didn’t bring significant cuts to city services. The Police Department, which received a noticeable funding boost this year, also competes with a number of other pressing financial concerns in a skin-tight budget: the pension system, the city’s depleted emergency reserves, a long list of deferred upgrades to city infrastructure and others.

Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin proposed hiring 30 civilians to perform desk jobs that are currently being handled by sworn officers, thereby freeing up the uniformed officers for street patrol. Adding the civilian positions to the budget will be less expensive than hiring sworn officers and will speed up the process because rookie cops must be trained for more than a year before they are ready for patrol duty, she said.

The $2 million civilian hiring program will be financed by funds budget officials expect to save on positions that go unfilled when officers leave the city in the next year. Known as vacancy saving, the controversial budgeting technique allows officials to spend money upfront that they expect to save through positions that come or remain open throughout the year. The IBA also recommended that the city increase the vacancy factor based on the heightened departure rate of the past few months.

But Madaffer said he still believes there is more money available because the vacancy factor is too conservative. He said the city needs to pour an additional $2 million into a recruitment and retention program to maintain police numbers.

Sanders said a plan should be put in place before money is spent. Tevlin agreed.

“We don’t feel we should recommend funds for a program until we see an aggressive, concrete retention plan from the mayor,” Tevlin said.

Among the ideas for retaining officer that are being played up by budget and police officials is giving officers the ability to work off duty, which would allow officers to supplement their income. Maheu, the police department’s budget director, also said officers will be more likely to stay around if they know that there are leadership opportunities within the department because of the increased departures.

“We’ll make more sergeants and lieutenants in the next two years than other departments will in these officers’ careers,” Maheu said.

Maheu said that the recruitment and retention plan will also streamline the application process.

He estimates that about 36 of the 143 people who applied to be officers earlier this month will qualify to be officers. With such hiring standards, any simplification of the rigorous screening and hiring process will make a difference, Maheu said.

Additionally, bureaucratic structures allow other agencies to offer jobs to recruits in San Diego’s academy before the city can, he said.

For the time being, the Police Department is spread thinner than officials would like. At a budget hearing this month, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne acknowledged that the city should ideally have a force that is 2,500 officers strong. Currently, there is an active staff of 1,800 cops, the chief said.

Some council members are also worried that the addition of a new substation in the northwestern suburbs in the coming year will take away about 20 officers away from the beats in other neighborhoods.

“There is no way that substation is not going to be staffed, which is a good thing. The only problem is that it spreads the icing on the cake a lot thinner for everyone,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins, chairwoman of the council’s budget committee. “We have got to have a plan to deal with this.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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