Wednesday, May 2, 2007 | It’s not just patrol officers who are feeling the pressure of declining police officer numbers in San Diego. The department’s child abuse unit, which less than three years ago was home to 20 full-time detectives, has since seen that number whittled down to 12 as a result of the department’s recruitment and retention crunch.

The unit continues to face child abuse rates that remain stubborn. That means detectives on the unit often have to work on as many as 15 cases at a time, police officials said, and cases that once took weeks to solve can now take months.

From 20 to 12 Detectives

  • The Issue: The San Diego Police Department’s child abuse unit currently has 40 percent fewer full-time detectives than it had three years ago.
  • What It Means: Detectives have a higher case load and take longer to solve abuse cases, but colleagues at other departments have not noted a drop in the quality of the unit’s work.
  • The Bigger Picture: The San Diego Police Department continues to lose officers and has lost many investigators to other agencies, including the District Attorney’s office, which hired 11 SDPD officers in one month earlier this year.

“Often parents call up asking for the status of their case and it’s totally embarrassing,” said Sgt. Mark Dallezotte, one of three sergeants in the unit. “We can’t say ‘You’re not important,’ because every case is important.”

The San Diego Police Department has been hemorrhaging staff for the last two years. In 2006, more officers left the department than in the previous five years and since Jan. 1, the department has lost 55 officers. A new pay deal offered to police last month aimed to stem the flow of officers to other departments, but it’s too early to tell if it has been effective.

Child abuse detectives said the staffing crunch also means they have had to cut back on outreach to schools, colleges and other law enforcement agencies — an element of their job they said is crucial. Detectives used to make presentations and hold discussion forums in local communities. Those activities, they said, often led them to find new instances of abuse, as well as providing an important educational service to children around the city.

These days, the unit doesn’t have the time or the personnel to carry out such outreach sessions, said Det. Donna Williams. That means San Diegans aren’t as aware of the symptoms, signs and causes of child abuse, Williams said.

“(The outreach sessions are) essential because you’re getting information out. You’re talking to kids, too, a lot of times, and they don’t know that it’s OK to tell,” she said.

But the detectives who work child abuse are not whiners, Dallezotte said. They have simply had to tighten their belts and make some adjustments to their day-to-day investigations procedures.

Cathi Palatella, a spokeswoman for San Diego County Child Protective Services, which coordinates responses to child abuse in the county and is the Police Department’s main collaborator on child abuse investigations, said she was not aware that the child abuse unit is understaffed. She said everything appeared to be working fine at the unit, and that she has not received any complaints from her staff about slower response times or a lack of communication from the department.

Palatella puts that down to the SDPD detectives using their time more efficiently.

“I guess they’re probably weeding out the reports we send them more vigorously,” she said.

Some of the child abuse unit’s cases come from patrol officers who witness suspected abuse while on patrol. However, the bulk of the unit’s investigations are born from Child Protective Services, which feeds the Police Department 25 to 50 suspected abuse reports a day. Those reports are read by supervisors every afternoon, who make something of a judgment call as to their priority.

Dallezotte said his remaining full-time detectives (two additional detectives are on light duty which means they cannot go out on investigations in the field) have to become more selective about the cases they choose to immediately investigate. Reports detailing obvious molestation or abuse are still investigated immediately, he said, but there are less clear-cut cases.

“There are other cases with a little question-mark on the back — did something really happen? At budgeted strength, they would have been immediately assigned out,” Dallezotte said.

Today, rather than immediately assigning a detective to investigate those cases, Dallezotte said, investigators will often simply place a call to the social services worker who instigated the report. Detectives will also check archived reports for previous allegations against the suspected abuser named on the report. If the detective still has cause for concern, then they will continue their investigation.

Dallezotte said his unit has had to change some of its procedures in order to streamline its workload. He said increased efficiency is essential in order to avoid “loading up” his detectives.

Leona Sublett, director of communications at the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that works with law enforcement agencies on child abuse issues, said the dropping staff level has served to kick-start efficiency measures at the SDPD.

Asked if she’s concerned that there are fewer detectives investigating child abuse in San Diego, Sublett said that has led her organization to work more closely with the SDPD.

“That’s why we’re more involved now,” Sublett said. “We want to support them so they can still effectively meet the city’s needs.”

Those needs are being met, Dallezotte stressed. He said he saw a similar drop in officer numbers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that time, units across the investigations department saw their numbers fall, but they eventually recovered. He hopes that will happen again.

“I can only hope that when people graduate from the academy, for every two that graduate and get back out in the field, hopefully one will be getting into a detective assignment sometime down the road, whether it’s here or someplace else, so we can start

building the investigations side back up,” he 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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