Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Though officials have publicly warned for years that San Diego Police Department officers were leaving the agency at an alarming rate — a narrative that led to taxpayer investments in the department and exemptions for officers from pay freezes — an audit released in April tells a different story.

It shows that the quit rate among sworn police officers was not as bad as officials portrayed and the new dollars flowing to SDPD have had a positive though modest effect on the already-low number of officers who voluntarily leave every year.

The report also criticized the Human Resources Department for not providing more context while going before the public and successfully advocating that police officers, depending on their years of service, receive 25 to 30 percent pay raises.

On Monday, the City Council resisted calls from the public to pull back funding for SDPD in response to nationwide protests over the unjust and unequal treatment of black people. Instead, elected officials voted 8-1 to approve a fiscal year 2021 budget that included $27 million in new funding for police, bringing the total cost of the department to nearly $600 million.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and others have justified the increase by pointing out that the money would go to pay raises approved several years ago, because SDPD officers had historically made less than their peers in other California cities. That’s not in dispute.

But the report produced by interim City Auditor Kyle Elser and his team threw cold water on one of the other major arguments for better police pay in San Diego. And it suggests that other government workers were equally, if not more, deserving of the city’s limited funds but didn’t have the same political clout.

SDPD deferred VOSD’s questions to the mayor’s office, which defended the pay raises by noting that the focus in 2017 was not just on the retention of police officers. It was also on retirements and a lack of new hires — all of which threatened to deplete the ranks.

“The mayor and the City Council took action to stabilize the department by stemming the flow of departing officers and attracting new recruits as quickly as possible,” Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Faulconer, wrote in an email.

As of Monday, she said, the city had 1,887 sworn police officers — “its highest level since 2009” — and in November saw its largest training academy in 25 years.

Two important things happened in 2012 that set the stage for the auditor’s report. As a large portion of SDPD’s workforce was nearing retirement age, the City Council greenlit a $142 million plan to double the number of recruits and academies. Voters also approved Proposition B, which replaced the guaranteed pension of a new city employee with a 401(k). Police got to keep their pensions, but the ballot measure froze everyone’s pay rate for five years.

Repeatedly over the years, elected officials have widely agreed that public safety funding should be the city’s priority and they’ve enshrined this principle in budget after budget.

By 2016, though, some were beginning to question whether the money they’d already set aside for police recruitment was worth it. Then-City Councilman David Alvarez’s office analyzed SDPD’s workforce and found that the annual turnover rate was 8 percent, higher than most agencies. The San Diego police officers’ union would later put the average annual turnover figure between 7 and 7.5 percent. Outside studies estimate that the average turnover rate nationwide for sworn police officers is about 5 percent.

“Unless the city solves the police officer retention problem, crime rates are likely to rise and it will be difficult to implement true community policing strategies,” Alvarez’s report noted.

But according to the April auditor’s report, 3.2 percent of sworn SDPD officers quit on average every year between 2015 and 2019, and only 1.2 percent left to join another law enforcement agency. The other turnover figures appear to have included cops who were already preparing to retire — meaning they quit because they were aging out, not necessarily because they got a more competitive offer elsewhere.

When pressed in 2017 on why SDPD hadn’t put more cops on the ground, then-Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman primarily put the blame on pay and the media.

“People think if they make a mistake, they’ll be the next YouTube video,” she said. “Some don’t think they have the support of the community.”

SDPD also circulated weekly updates showing how many cops had gone elsewhere with their skills and training — which is around $190,000 per person when direct and indirect costs of the first year are factored in.

The campaign to spend money to save money culminated in December 2017 with a proposal by the Human Resources Department to substantially increase officer pay. It was expected to cost $18 million in fiscal year 2019 and $47.9 million in fiscal year 2020.

A report prepared by the city around that time showed that nearly a third of the 39 officers who resigned in fiscal year 2017 were recruits, most of whom had been on board a couple months. One recruit was listed with “0 yrs, 0 mos” experience. Two more left “in lieu of termination.” Three police officers relocated out of state. Two others departed for “continuing education.”

Only four police officers were listed as having voluntarily left to pursue “other employment.” But this didn’t get airtime.

Instead, officials at the December 2017 City Council meeting leaned into other stats showing that as many as 30 percent of SDPD’s sworn officers were planning to retire within the next three to five years. Without getting into specifics of why people leave and where they might be going, officials played up the simple fact that departures happen.

“For years, our police department has had a major retention and recruitment problem that has made our officers job much more difficult,” Faulconer told the City Council. “We have struggled as a city to hire and to keep our veteran officers from leaving.”

One speaker after another at the same hearing suggested that cops were running scared from the mean streets of affluent neighborhoods and into the arms of safe, well-paying suburbs.

“Failure to then pay salaries that are commensurate with the surrounding officers means we lose and they win,” said La Jolla Town Council Crime Watch Committee co-chair Catharine Douglass.

Cynthia Chasan, who was also part of the town council, called on elected officials to “right an egregious wrong” before it was too late. “This crisis has driven the police department from community policing to focused policing, leaving La Jolla besieged with increased quality-of-life crimes,” she said. “These are just the type of crimes that drive away tourism.”

At the time, new hires were making 5 percent less than their counterparts in two dozen other California cities and jurisdictions while officers with eight years’ experience were making 12 percent less. Today, San Diego cops on average make about the same and in some cases more than cops in other parts of the state.

Looking back on this decision to increase pay, the auditors acknowledge that SDPD has had staffing problems — training people takes time, so positions can remain vacant a while — but suggested that the city’s decision to cancel three police academies around 2010 and 2011 had a negative effect. The report also leaves open the possibility that SDPD would be smaller today if the mayor and City Council hadn’t intervened in 2017.

That was essentially the mayor’s position and how Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, views the situation as well. The quit rate of union members in 2018 dropped slightly to 2.9 percent. Since then, according to Schaeffer, more cops who were eligible for retirement have elected to stay on, likely because of the better pay.

“The fact we’ve leveled the playing field has helped,” he said.

But Schaeffer also argued that the city should do more to entice cops away from other agencies, so that San Diego isn’t a training ground for the region. In addition to the pay raises in recent years, San Diego has set money aside for targeted marketing campaigns to boost recruitment. Obviously, Schaeffer is supportive of that effort.

When compared to other departments within the city, SDPD is bigger and better funded and generally more stable. Having guaranteed pensions helped. Government workers who don’t, according to the city auditor, are three to four times more likely to quit.

The city’s prosecutors, who make up the other side of San Diego law enforcement, have a particularly bad problem with pay and turnover. New deputy city attorneys in 2019 made 26 percent less than counterparts elsewhere while those with five years’ experience made 32 percent less. The annual quit rate for the whole office was 10 percent.

Image via Office of the City Auditor

The auditors noted that while “recruitment and retention” was the primary reason for police pay raises in 2017, the city, because of the coronavirus pandemic, “now has less money available to spend for many of its other employees that have much higher rates of turnover and much lower rates of compensation competitiveness.”

In an email, Chadwick, the spokeswoman for the mayor, highlighted pay and benefit increases given to all six of the labor groups within San Diego as well as its unclassified employees since 2017.

It’s not just cops who get raises. But cops did get a special exemption from pay freezes, which was approved by voters in 2012 and good until 2018.

“Public safety is the No. 1 priority, so the city made a deliberate and strategic decision about where to place the investment at that time,” Chadwick said. “We’re seeing the results of that decision come to fruition to the benefit of all San Diegans.”

Prop. B is at the heart of the auditor’s recent report, and there’s a bit of irony there. In 2012, its supporters said it would save the city money by freezing salaries for five years, but the pay raise for police actually undid many of those savings.

Going forward, the interim city auditor is advocating that the city’s Human Resources and Personnel departments come up with a better, more detailed system for tracking and monitoring the workforce so that the public has all the necessary context to debate these issues in the future.

The 153-page auditor’s report looked across the city’s workforce and its findings on SDPD didn’t attract much attention in May. No one on the Audit Committee asked about police pay or retention. Instead, officials talked about the need to gather more data citywide on why some people are leaving. One official noted that the Human Resources Department got a new director in 2018.

The audit goes next to the City Council.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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