The San Diego Police Department has a retention problem.

At least that’s what the San Diego Police Officers Association argues in a packet it has shared with City Council members, District 4 candidates and residents as it begins negotiating a new contract with city leaders.

The 13-page document makes a series of claims about the status of the police force and officer pay. Union leaders aren’t hiding their motives. They argue the city must increase officers’ total compensation by 10 percent this year to attract new officers and keep current ones from leaving and taking other jobs.

We decided to fact check four of the police union’s claims because the status of Police Department staffing will be under the microscope as labor and budget talks continue. Vetting these claims would provide a better understanding of where the agency stands.

Image: MISLEADINGStatement: “A single drop in the bucket (one officer) is a $190,000 investment in the first year.”

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: Not just anyone can become a police officer and once she’s gotten proper training, she’ll work for months before she patrols on her own.

Aspiring officers must take written and physical tests. They also must pass background checks, medical screenings and polygraph tests. Then they spend six months in the police academy. While there, they collect a salary and must have necessary equipment. If they graduate, they’ll spend at least four months accompanied by field training officers who assess their on-the-job performance.

Assistant Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who oversees human resources at the Police Department, recently worked with city financial analysts to gauge the cost per officer. They determined that the Police Department invests about $191,785 in the average new officer’s first year on the job.

Here’s a breakdown of those costs:

• Pre-employment vetting: $4,200-$4,300

This covers testing, a background check by the San Diego Police Department and psychological and medical evaluations.

• Salary and benefits: $93,600

This includes both salary, benefits and pension costs. The officer’s total compensation during the six-month academy is $39,600. For the remainder of the year it’s $44,000. Police also add an estimated $10,000 in overtime to reach the $93,600 total. Zimmerman said the overtime is based on the average amount of extra work expected for critical incidents or court hearings on days off.

• Equipment and Academy Tuition: $14,500

This includes an officer’s duty pistol, laptop, radio, protective vest and other supplies. In most cases, officers must return these items if they leave the department. This cost also covers tuition at the San Diego Regional Public Safety Training Institute at Miramar College.

• Instruction: $25,385

This covers academy instruction costs, as well as management of the department’s shooting range and training provided by the Police Department.

• Training in the field: $54,000

After an officer graduates from the police academy, he’s assigned to a series of veteran officers who evaluate his performance and provide on-the-job training. At least four senior officers assist each newcomer for a one-month period and those officers receive additional pay for their efforts. Those additional amounts, as well as a portion of the officer’s regular salary, are incorporated into the estimated investment cost.

Zimmerman acknowledged her $191,785 estimate includes more than direct costs.

“It wasn’t just pay and benefits,” she said. “It was also an investment of time we took to opt in this person, to train this person.”

Zimmerman said the figure isn’t included in Police Department budgets.

“We’re not saying in order to bring on an officer (requires) $191,000 in the budget,” she said. “What we’re saying is (this) is the investment cost.”

Jeff Jordon, vice president of the police union, has served as a training officer and said those who serve in that role often respond to fewer calls for assistance because of the time spent mentoring a newcomer to the force.

Jordon said the union relied on the department’s estimate when it included the $190,000 estimate on how much the city invests in an officer’s first year.

A misleading claim takes an element of truth and badly distorts or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression. That definition applies here because while the police union’s $190,000 estimate was very close to the Police Department’s, the latter incorporates some questionable costs.

For example, the department included a portion of the salaries and added pay that training officers collect in its tabulation despite the fact that those officers would patrol city streets and collect a paycheck even if they weren’t accompanied by rookie cops. Training is an investment but paychecks aren’t. The department gets an immediate return whenever an officer reports for duty so their salaries cannot be considered investments. And the $54,000 estimate the department suggested in this category seems especially excessive when they’re continuing to make arrests and perform other duties.

That’s also the case for the officers who graduate from the academy. Though they may be in need of significant on-the-job training, they are providing a service to the city, and draw a paycheck for that service. Simply incorporating the $44,000 in salary and benefits collected during that time fails to acknowledge their contribution to the department.

The total investment cost per officer would significantly decrease if the department only incorporated direct investments.

Image: MOSTLY TRUEStatement: “30% of 800 SDPD officers hired after 7/1/05 are gone. 240 @ $190,000 = ($)45 million taxpayer investment wasted!”

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: Attrition is a fact of life for any employer but San Diego police leaders say it’s especially worrisome at a police department.

So far this year, police have lost an average of nine officers a month, Zimmerman said.

That’s significant because the city aims to add nearly 160 officers in coming years as part of a five-year plan to restore police staffing to 2009 levels. As more senior officers leave the department, they’ll need to be replaced and it will likely be with less experienced ones.

The police union argues that the city should work to retain its officers rather than spend money to hire new ones. It sought to illustrate the impact of staffing losses with the $45 million claim.

Jordon, the union’s vice president, created a database last fall to track attrition among officers hired since the beginning of the 2006 fiscal year.

At the time, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a wage freeze and benefit cuts inspired dozens of officers to apply for jobs elsewhere.

Jordon said he found that, as of September 2012, 241 of the 800 officers hired since July 2005 had left the department. He has not updated his spreadsheet in months.

Since September, 28 recruits have graduated from the police academy. Another 60 remain there, according to the Police Department.

When we asked the department to analyze attrition among newly hired officers, staffers determined the city has hired 888 officers since July 1, 2005. Of those, 255 have left the San Diego force, Zimmerman said.

That amounts to about 29 percent of officers hired since summer 2005, close to the police union’s estimate of 30 percent.

The highest overall turnover rates came years ago. In 2007, the department lost 25 officers in a single month. Then-Mayor Jerry Sanders later agreed to give police across-the-board raises in 2007 and 2008.

And the latest attrition rates at the San Diego Police Department aren’t outside the norm for an agency of its size, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Last year, 95 officers left the department. That amounts to about 5 percent of the police force.

The department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics collected information about officer retention in 2008 and found that those with more than 500 officers lost an average of 5.4 percent of officers that year.

More recent data wasn’t immediately available.

The attrition problems aren’t unique to San Diego, said Josh Chanin, a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University.

“Gone are the days that a local police officer stays at the same agency and works for 30 years, gets a decent salary and retires with a decent pension,” Chanin said. “If cops are so inclined, they can shop around.”

But the police union’s statement about attrition focused only on officers hired since 2005, not many of the veterans who made headlines as they retired or left as a result of benefit changes.

For that reason, the police union’s claim that 30 percent of the officers hired since July 2005 have left the San Diego Police Department is mostly true.

Image: TRUEStatement: “Latest pay study of top 75 agencies in California places SDPD 68th.”

Determination: True

Analysis: Late last year, a Los Angeles-area consultant gathered reams of data from police unions and cities across the state.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs hired Lavell Communications, a company that works with labor organizations, to get a sense of how their agency’s compensation compared with others. They requested information from police unions, reviewed municipalities’ contracts with police associations and when necessary, sought more details from human resources staffers.

The researchers, led by Jeffrey Monical, analyzed nearly 100 forms of compensation, including pension payouts, health insurance, uniform allowances, vacation time and bonuses.

Monical said he calculated net pay based on those factors to rank the 75 police departments. He approached county and city departments across the state and tried to include departments that varied in size and location.

“It is a broad-brush representative sample of agencies in California,” Monical said. “It’s not all the small ones. It’s not all the big ones but it is hopefully 75 that represent what’s going on in California right now.”

The San Diego Police Officers Association provided details for the survey, including a report from an Oklahoma-based consultant that performed a comparative pay study for the police union.

Monical’s firm concluded net pay at San Diego Police Department was 68th out of the 75 participating departments.

That means the union’s claim earns a “true” rating.

Most other San Diego-area agencies that participated in the survey came out looking more favorably. The survey found that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the Oceanside, Escondido and Chula Vista police departments provided greater total compensation to officers.

Sanders gave police across-the-board raises in 2007 and 2008.

Image: MOSTLY TRUEStatement: “Nearly 320 SDPD officers are retirement eligible. 800 officers will reach retirement age in the next four years.”

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: The San Diego Police Department is on a constant mission to replace officers who leave the department.

That’s a challenge that will complicate the agency’s five-year goal to have 2,128 officers by 2018. As of early March, the department had 1,846 officers.

And many officers are eligible to retire soon, as the union emphasized in its packet.

Officers who are eligible to retire generally fall into one of two categories: at least 50 years old with 20 or more years of police work, or at least 55 years old with 10 or more years of police work.

Zimmerman, the assistant police chief, said the police union’s estimates were off but emphasized that the number of eligible retirees is constantly in flux.

The police union analyzed potential retirements last fall and its estimate of nearly 320 officers eligible for retirement was accurate at that time, Zimmerman said.

The numbers have fallen since due to several retirements.

Zimmerman’s latest review found that about 296 officers are now eligible to retire.

The number of officers who will be eligible to retire in the next four years is also a rapidly changing figure.

Zimmerman found as many as 919 officers — about half of the police force — could retire within four years.

The police union’s numbers fell short here, largely because staffing numbers change daily. Zimmerman said their numbers were likely accurate as of September but birthdays and retirements can quickly skew numbers.

She also acknowledged that a small number of officers may fall into both retirement-eligibility categories, slightly increasing the Police Department’s figures.

The union earns a mostly true rating for that reason but it would have been prudent for them to note that the number of retirement-eligible officers is constantly in flux and disclose when they ran their numbers.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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