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The San Diego Police Department’s staffing level has fallen to new lows. We have 38 fewer officers at the end of fiscal year 2017 than when we had on July 1, 2016.


Back in 2006, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders declared a staffing emergency when the SDPD reached 1,912 sworn officers. Staffing is already 100 officers below that number today and the department will likely go below 1,800 sworn officers in August.

It’s time to analyze this critical problem and its impacts so city leaders can come up with the right solutions.

The Police Executive Research Forum’s assessment of the SDPD produced a series of recommendations to correct the department’s shortcomings. Leaders have sought to promptly address them, particularly as they relate to supervision and training.

Yet despite the best efforts to bring about change, inadequate SDPD staffing has continued to produce massive vacancies for sergeants and detectives, and the department has been forced to fill these crucial openings with current patrol officers and officers who train new recruits. Depleting the number of officers who are trained to teach others perpetuates the cycle of insufficient preparation, supervision and accountability noted by the Police Executive Research Forum’s assessment. It does not take an experienced detective to recognize the obvious pattern to these troubles and they can be easily summed up: SDPD does not have the staffing to meet expectations – its own or the communities it serves – and releasing feel-good stories and positive crime statistics is not going to change that.

Expectations related to response times and proactive patrols to detect and prevent incidents before they happen are going to suffer further setbacks in the immediate future. Compounding the problem are further demands that will soon be made on the officers who remain. Enacted legislative changes like the Racial Identity and Profiling Act of 2015 will require extensive data collection related to every police contact, and it goes into effect in 2018.

While the information collected under this law may yield more insights and produce better dialogue on police interactions than the limited traffic stop analysis conducted by San Diego State University, there are consequences to it. Notably, SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman has stated before the City Council that meeting the law’s provisions will require SDPD officers to spend in excess of 17,000 hours annually collecting the data. This obligation will weigh down the SDPD as calls from local business owners and residents related to quality of life and homelessness continue to overwhelm officers.

At some point, politicians and professional and community activists who continually demand more and more from the SDPD need to understand that sworn officers are not in the position to do any more now or in the foreseeable future without immediate help to increase staffing.

Since the SDPD cannot thrive while trying to survive its daily staffing crisis, both critics and supporters should step up and remind Council members that the failure of the SDPD’s five-year plan, which set out to increase staffing levels by now, is unacceptable.

Further analysis could provide insights into how the SDPD’s inadequate staffing is impacting citizens. An updated performance audit of SDPD’s patrol operations is a good place to start.

The city auditor should also assess the costs of officer attrition, as 30 percent of police recruits who joined the department over the last 10 years have failed to successfully complete their training. The city’s independent budget analyst office has already noted officer recruitment and retention will be one of the most significant challenges to the city this year, but a cost analysis of officer attrition may be helpful to the mayor’s staff as we head into negotiations with the city.

The information gained by doing this analysis would be invaluable to city leaders and the community.

San Diego Police officers have been asked to do too much, for too long and with too little. The collective efforts of community stakeholders, along with elected officials, are urgently needed to help them. After going nearly 10 years without salary increases, they find themselves paid at least 20 percent less than nearby agencies and enduring working conditions that are significantly worse. Most importantly, SDPD officers have lost hope about whether elected officials possess the desire, ability and courage to change their situation.

To be clear, when a 1 percent pay raise costs approximately $1.65 million to implement across all ranks, it does take courage to find the money and advocate it be spent to end the SDPD’s recruitment and retention difficulties. Without the implementation of significant compensation changes within the department, its staffing will remain inadequate to meet the expectations of a growing community that continually demands more of its officers than ever.

Brian Marvel is president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. Marvel’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here


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