Image: mostly trueStatement: “For instance, 840 police officers (about half of the sworn staff) left the San Diego Police Department when the city began changing benefits it relied upon to recruit and retain officers. More than 200 of them went to other agencies,” wrote Jeff Jordon, vice president of the police officers union, in an editorial the Union-Tribune published March 20.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: Mayor Jerry Sanders, City Councilman Carl DeMaio and others are pushing a ballot measure to replace city pensions with a 401(k)-style plan for all new hires except police officers. Ending pensions for police officers, supporters argue, would weaken San Diego’s ability to attract top talent at the risk of residents’ safety.

Jordon supports the exception for police and cited the exodus of officers in recent years to back up supporters’ recruitment concerns. While the numbers he mentioned in the editorial are accurate, according to personnel statistics from the Police Department, there are two important nuances to keep in mind here.

First, the more than 800 that left the department did so over the course of several years since 2005, when the city started requiring police officers to pay more for their pensions. Jordon said half the police force left, but the officers didn’t all leave at the same time. At the peak of the exodus, 264 officers, or just over one-tenth of the police force, left in 2009. Many retired that year to avoid a significant cut to their retirement benefits.

Second, while police and Sanders called retaining officers a crisis just a few years ago, it’s not a problem for the department today. Other law enforcement agencies had become attractive to San Diego police officers as the city cut back on benefits following its fiscal crisis earlier in the decade. But as the economy soured, governments across the state had less money from tax revenues to hire police officers. The recession spurred budget problems similar to San Diego’s and the prospect of leaving for a better policing job declined. Here’s how Police Chief Bill Lansdowne described the situation last year:

Nobody’s hiring. There’s nowhere to go. Where we were getting small numbers of 50 to 60 officers applying, we’re getting several hundred officers apply every time. There’s no limit to the number of officers I could hire if I had the money to be able to do that.

What’s happening today is a stark contrast to the period Jordon highlighted, when dozens of veteran officers were leaving San Diego each year for other law enforcement agencies. After downsizing the police force last year, the city has stopped hiring new officers to replace those who left. To help the city save money, at the end of March, the department had 149 fewer officers than it’s budgeted.

The graphic to the right illustrates how the exodus of police officers peaked and then slowed in recent years. While at least 200 officers have left SDPD for other policing jobs since the city started changing benefits, fewer than 20 officers have made the same move in the last couple of years.

Although police officers have been exempted from the proposed ballot measure, Sanders and DeMaio aren’t opposed to moving them toward a 401(k)-style plan in the future. DeMaio initially proposed replacing all pensions with 401(k)-style plans. The mayor recently said on KUSI that his opinion would depend on what other police agencies do.

“If we’re the only pension system in the state of California that has a 401(k) for police, we’ll never be able to hire or attract another police officer to the city,” Sanders said. “If the rest of the state goes to a 401(k), that’s a completely different issue then, and that’s something that we would fix at that point.”

Since Jordon’s numbers accurately reflect the Police Department’s statistics and there are a few important nuances to consider about the context of his argument, the statement fits our definition for Mostly True.

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