Tuesday, March 27, 2007 | The San Diego Police Department lost 25 sworn officers to retirement, other local departments and resignations between Feb. 20 and March 20, according to police records. Eleven of those officers were recruited as investigators by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, whose chief investigator plans to hire another six veteran officers in the next month.

The exodus comes as the city and the police union are locked in labor negotiations, with both sides acknowledging that officers’ compensation has played a significant role in the Police Department’s recruitment and retention troubles.

Fleeing the Scene

  • The Issue: The San Diego Police Department lost 25 officers between Feb. 20 and March 20.
  • What It Means: The department has seen an exodus of officers in recent months, though the high attrition figure can be explained partly by a change in recruiting practices at the District Attorney’s Office, which hired 11 of those leaving the SDPD.
  • The Bigger Picture: With the police department currently 13 percent understaffed, one detective describes his case load as “un-manageable.” “If you’re a police officer here, you would have to be crazy not to at least think about moving somewhere else,” he says.

The city budget calls for 2,109 sworn police officers. As of March 20, there were 1,836 officers on the force with another 49 recruits in the academy but not eligible for duty. The department is therefore currently operating with 87 percent of the officers it budgeted for.

On Feb. 20 there were 1,860 officers on duty, or 88 percent of the budgeted staff.

According to a city report published earlier this month, San Diego had been losing an average of 14 officers per month since the beginning of 2007. Capt. Robert Kanaski said that the unusually high loss of personnel in the last month is partly due to an abnormally large number of officers leaving the department to join the local District Attorney’s Office.

“I think it was an extraordinary month. I think it was an anomaly at least in that regard,” said Kanaski, who oversees the department’s human resources.

Paula Robinson, chief of investigations at the District Attorney’s Office, said her department has changed its recruiting pattern for 2007. Rather than recruiting staff over the entire year, this year Robinson’s office is doing all of its hiring in one effort. In total, Robinson hopes to hire 17 investigators from the San Diego Police Department this year. In 2006, 10 San Diego police officers transferred to the District Attorney’s Office.

Regardless of the district attorney’s recruitment drive, however, Kanaski acknowledged that the rate of attrition of officers in the San Diego Police Department has not slowed. Other police departments and agencies see the SDPD struggling to keep its officers, he said. They see the continuing labor negotiations between the city and its police officers, and they know it’s time to strike.

Growing San Diego Police Exodus

Source: San Diego Police Department

Where Officers Went Last Month

Source: San Diego Police Department

Changes in Police Staffing Levels

Source: Independent Budget Analyst’s Office

“I think there’s an understanding that if you’re another law enforcement agency, you’re probably going to take advantage of somebody else’s misfortune like ours,” Kanaski said, adding: “It doesn’t feel good, it does make me angry, but you know what — it’s a competitive world.”

Paul Levikow, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said all of the new investigators will start off at the first step on the department’s pay scale. The annual base salary for a level one district attorney investigator is $57,283.20. That salary rises incrementally to a maximum salary of $69,638.40, according to the district attorney’s website. District attorney investigators also get a company car, a perk that several San Diego police officers said helps tip the balance in the job’s favor.

A survey commissioned by the city found that San Diego police officers rank near the bottom in take-home pay when compared with their colleagues elsewhere. According to that report, a San Diego police officer earns a base salary of between $43,752 and $67,440.

Already facing an estimated $87 million budget whole in the upcoming year, Mayor Jerry Sanders acknowledged the need to bring officers’ compensation more in line with other departments.

Not everyone who’s leaving is going to work for Dumanis, however.

Of the 25 people who left the police department, 10 retired. Two of those who retired then went to work for the district attorney. Fourteen staff members resigned to take jobs with other departments. Nine of those went to the district attorney and the others went to various police departments, including El Cajon, Anaheim and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Hector Fuentes, a deputy sheriff with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in Alpine, worked for the SDPD for 12 years before leaving in February. Fuentes said he finally had enough of the financial stress the job has brought his family. In recent years, the city of San Diego has forced police officers to contribute more toward their benefits, reducing officers’ take-home pay.

“I have a hard time working for a city who has stolen money from me and then turned around and lied about it,” Fuentes said.

These days, as well as making more money and commuting 35 less miles to work each way, Fuentes said he’s also more relaxed about his future.

“I’ve got that burden off my back,” he said. “I’m not sitting around thinking, ‘Are we going to take a bigger hit?’”

Detective Tim Williams with the Police Department’s Child Abuse Unit has been with the SDPD since 1985. He said several of his colleagues have recently left the department to go to the District Attorney’s Office and elsewhere. That exodus of talent creates a vicious circle, he said, where fewer detectives means a larger workload for those left behind.

“We simply cannot keep up,” he said. “There used to be around 18 detectives in child abuse, and now there are 11.”

Williams cited take-home pay as the number one factor leading to attrition. Some detectives have seen their take-home pay reduced by $900 a month, he said. Combine that with a better-managed caseload and a company car — in the case of the district attorney investigators — and it’s not surprising that so many people are leaving.

“If you’re a police officer here, you would have to be crazy not to at least think about moving somewhere else,” Williams said.

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

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