The city wants to hand millions to police officers who’ve long griped about their paltry pay – and it might get the best bang for its buck if it pays special attention to veteran cops.

Late last week, the city revealed an initial plan to set aside $30.5 million for police officers over the next five years.

Negotiations with the police union are ongoing and the city’s mum on whether it plans to offer straight pay hikes or improved benefits. A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer would only say he supports Proposition B, a 2012 ballot measure that ushered in five-year pensionable pay freezes for city workers.

This means the mayor, the city’s chief dealmaker in labor talks, may not be willing to dole out straight pay raises until the five-year freeze expires.

Whatever the city opts to do, its best bet may be to throw much of the money at veteran officers.

Let’s start with a look at how much San Diego police officers make compared with their counterparts at other local law enforcement agencies.  These numbers come from a city-commissioned police compensation study released earlier this month. This chart shows how much officers at various county agencies are paid based on their experience.

Clearly, San Diego officers are making less than cops at most other agencies in the county, no matter their level of experience.

One of those agencies matters more than the others.

That’s the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. It has just under 2,600 deputies and plans to hire about 700 new ones in the next five years.

That pans out to about 140 deputies a year, and a Sheriff’s Department spokesman projects 21 to 28 of them will be veteran officers from other agencies.

The Sheriff’s Department’s also handing out $5,000 hiring bonuses paid out over four and a half years.

So far this fiscal year, seven former San Diego officers have gone to work for the county. And last year,  16 San Diego police applicants opted to go to work at the Sheriff’s Department instead.

The salary survey shows sheriff’s deputies aren’t making much more than San Diego officers right now – and both agencies are paying officers less than the average of the 19 California departments studied.

Here’s how base pay at the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department compares with the average, depending on an officer’s number of years on the job.

But there’s a key difference between the two agencies. Officers with more than four years’ experience at the San Diego Police Department earn the same base salary as officers with 20 years’ experience, absent a promotion: about $75,940.

About half of the San Diego police force makes this amount.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department bumps up pay for veteran deputies by the time they’ve reached 8.5 years on the job and sheriff’s deputies’ latest contract with the county means they’ll be making about 23 percent more than San Diego officers come 2017.

Here’s a look at the base salaries for officers at various points in their careers.

The salary survey lists health and retirement benefit averages for a broad range of officers, from those who had just graduated from the academy to those who’ve spent years on the force.

Here’s how San Diego police force and the Sheriff’s Department compare when you add health and retirement benefits into the mix.

It’s unclear how county pension changes might affect the salary discrepancies between the two agencies in the future. The county’s contract with sheriff’s deputies says  the payments it’s long made to offset employee’s pension bills will vanish at the end of the agreement. Those benefits now help contribute into an overall higher compensation level for sheriff’s deputies.

Still, one thing is clear: If the value of the benefits the two agencies offer is substantially similar, closing the gulf in base pay for veteran officers – or making up the difference in another way – is crucial as the department copes with retention problems. Already, about half of the police force will be eligible to retire within four years.

Taking a targeted approach to police recruiting and retention via salary increases isn’t unheard of. Indeed, veteran’s sheriff deputies saw the largest raises in the latest contract with the county, creating a police pay gulf that’s set to grow in coming years.

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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