Friday, Aug. 24, 2007 | Thanks in part to a boost in pay and a reconfiguration of benefit packages, the hemorrhage of San Diego police officers slowed in the last fiscal year and has crawled almost to a standstill in the last two months.

The exodus of sworn police officers from the San Diego Police Department to other local law enforcement agencies has become a thorny issue for the department in recent years. In a one-month period earlier this year, the SDPD lost 25 officers to other law enforcement agencies, and Mayor Jerry Sanders branded the loss of officers a crisis in the months leading up to the police department’s April pay deal.

But as a new fiscal year dawns, the department seems to be making some headway in stemming the staff losses and attracting new recruits. With police academy numbers up and attrition levels down, Capt. Robert Kanaski, the official in charge of human resources at the department, said things look promising for the coming months.

However, echoing police union officials, Kanaski cautioned that many SDPD officers consider this year’s pay raise — either 8 percent or 9 percent depending on an officer’s experience — a first step in the department’s road to recovery. Though the complaints about pay and benefits have slowed, Kanaski said, many within the department want to see the gains solidify before making up their mind about whether to stay for the long term. That means the city’s next bout of pay negotiations in 2008 could prove crucial.

“I think it’s still more of a ‘wait and see’ attitude for what the next negotiation period will bring,” Kanaski said.

The police department is fighting the battle for troops on two fronts: It must hold on to its current cadre of sworn officers while also searching for new recruits to backfill positions made vacant by officer attrition and retirement.

Kanaski said this year’s pay increase has helped make the SDPD “less of a hard sell” to potential recruits. The department now ranks somewhere in the middle of local law enforcement agencies on the pay scale, Kanaski said. That would be a marked improvement from last December, when an independent study showed the SDPD paid its officers well below the norm for the region.

The department has also bolstered efforts to recruit new officers and to make itself more visible and more approachable to the community.

In April, the SDPD rolled out a new, shorter, version of the written test it requires candidates to take as a first step in their application. The department has also added an extra evening test each month, which Kanaski said has helped bring in greater numbers of applicants.

Police recruiters have begun attending local marathons, neighborhood festivals and other public events in search of recruits, Kanaski said. In October, Kanaski’s team will take its effort outside of California for the first time when it undertakes recruitment drives in two Arizona cities. Last week, the department held its first written test at the Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar.

These efforts have resulted in swelling police academy attendance. Last year, the department’s police academy attracted numbers in the teens or twenties. This year, academy attendance has doubled. The last academy, which graduates in January, had 41 entrants.

Jeff Jordon, a Western Division patrol officer who sits on the police union’s board, said Kanaski’s team should be credited with bringing more recruits to the force — but only if the department has not lowered its standards.

“Whatever they’re doing, it’s working,” Jordon said.

In addition to the recruitment gains, the number of officers leaving the SDPD has come down from the beginning of the year. In fiscal year 2007, which ended on June 30, 174 people left the department. That’s 38 fewer that the year before, when 212 people left.

And no officers left the SDPD during the first two weeks of August, the first time Kanaski’s seen a two-week break in attrition since joining the human resources department a year ago.

Jordon said it’s too soon to tell whether the worst of the attrition is over, and said he wants to see many more months of slowing departure rates before he says the department is back on form. He said most of the officers who have thought about leaving are simply waiting to see what other improvements in pay and benefits the city has to offer.

“There’s still a large number of people who can go elsewhere,” Jordon said. “People want to stay here, they just need a reason to stay here.”

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