San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego police are staring down a staffing crisis that’s fueling surging response times and overtime spending – and the problem appears unlikely to improve anytime soon. 

Last fiscal year, the San Diego Police Department lost 241 officers, a 51 percent spike from the previous year. Another 138 officers have already departed this year and academy graduations aren’t keeping pace with the losses. The department expects to end the year with more departures than new hires. 

The staffing shortage has led Police Chief David Nisleit to propose the city hire more civilians to take on some work now handled by officers. 

Police Capt. Jeff Jordon said the chief’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year included about 20 police investigative service officers to assist with low-level probes and other tasks, and about a dozen other civilians to assist with records requests and reporting mandates now handled by officers.  

Mayor Todd Gloria is set to release his proposed budget, which incorporates recommendations from department heads like Nisleit, next month. 

Nisleit and Jordon say the civilian hiring push is a bid to free up officers to focus on 911 calls and more serious investigations. 

After years of focus on hiring sworn officers, it’s also a recognition that a different approach is needed to address staffing shortages and overtime budget overages that the city’s independent budget analysts expect to endure for four to five years – if the department meets retention and recruitment goals it’s not on track to meet. 

“Given the significant amount of attrition that has occurred over the last two years, it will take years before staffing levels recover,” budget analyst Baku Patel said at a recent City Council meeting. 

Overtime expenditures are projected to come in $9.2 million above budget for the fiscal year ending in June. Most of that overage is a result of the department paying patrol officers overtime to work in a different division to address staffing gaps. 

There have been lots of staffing gaps. 

A chart produced by the police department and obtained by Voice of San Diego showing the percentage of days and shifts that agency-recommended staffing minimums were reached in the city’s police districts early last year – at a time when Covid-19 was more rampant – sheds light on the depth of the problem.  

San Diego police staffing document obtained by Voice of San Diego.

In the first three-and-a-half months of 2022, the Northern Division’s graveyard shift reached recommended staffing less than 13 percent of the time while Mid-City’s 2 p.m. to midnight shift hit minimum staffing less than 5 percent during that same period. Northern Division includes Pacific Beach, Clairemont and La Jolla while Mid-City covers North Park, City Heights and Rolando. 

Only the Northwestern Division – which includes Carmel Valley, Black Mountain Ranch and Sorrento Valley – hit minimum staffing 100 percent of the time for any shifts during the three-and-a-half month period. 

Jared Wilson, who leads the San Diego Police Officers Association, said the department regularly remains unable to meet recommended staffing targets, an outcome he says imperils residents and officers.  

“It’s not safe for citizens to not have coverage that the city and the police department have decided is the minimum that we should have,” Wilson said. 

Capt. Jordon said that while Covid-related sick or personal days have decreased since early 2022, the need to hire officers to work overtime in other commands remains a regular reality.  

“Backfilling is still needed and needed in large numbers,” Jordon said. 

Police have said the need to backfill patrol – and increasing response times to 911 calls throughout the city – can largely be attributed to a record-low number of officers available to respond to calls.  

Nisleit wrote in an August 2022 memo obtained by Voice that the department had “the lowest available sworn staffing in over 15 years.”  

The chief wrote at the time that the department had 1,629 “available” officers — down from just under 1,700 five years earlier.  The number excluded more than 230 other officers — or roughly 12.5 percent of employed officers — unavailable for full duty in summer 2022 for reasons including leaves, light-duty assignments and the need to complete a training academy.  

Jordon said the number of available officers has slightly improved since Nisleit’s August 2022 memo. He declined to provide specific staffing numbers, citing safety concerns. 

The police captain has also said increasing administrative responsibilities tied to new initiatives such as statewide transparency reforms and an uptick in public records requests have moved more officers off the street, exacerbating the department’s staffing challenges.  

This is all despite steadily increasing San Diego police budgets over much of the last decade.   

San Diego isn’t the only city with a police staffing crunch. 

A 2022 Police Executive Research Forum survey of the national organization’s members found that more than half of agencies that responded had fewer police officers than they did four or five years ago and had seen spikes in retirements and resignations.   

“San Diego is not alone in facing dramatic staffing declines and there does not seem any solution in sight,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the national organization. 

Wexler said the problem is magnified by departments poaching from other agencies and offering significant hiring bonuses to try to address staffing shortages. 

Indeed, officials in local cities including San Diego, Chula Vista, National City and Oceanside have approved hiring bonuses – and 112 San Diego officers have moved to other departments since July 2021.  

Wexler said more sustainable solutions to staffing shortages likely won’t deliver quick results – and noted that national narratives around police misconduct and racial profiling are for now making it tougher to attract newcomers. 

Wexler suggested departments expand initiatives like San Diego’s cadet program to increase interest in future police careers among high schoolers, streamline hiring processes as San Diego has sought to do in recent years and reassess hiring criteria that has historically ruled out would-be officers. 

For now, Wexler said, many departments like San Diego are considering more civilian hires, in some cases out of necessity. Last year, police in cities including New Orleans, Phoenix and Baltimore announced plans to increase their civilian corps amid staffing crises. 

Now San Diego appears likely to join them. 

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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  1. Not a single mention of the “defund the police” movement spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter protesters and the removal of officer immunity by progressive Democrat office holders around the country.

  2. Who cares? There is no violent crime here, only audacious drug addicts. If you cannot remove them, your police force has little value to most residents. Sure it’s Mara Elliot’s fault for being an activist instead of doing the job she wanted, but that doesn’t change the value proposition.

  3. So Y r the police shortstaffed now? There R no mandates any longer for the vax? Something else is going on.

  4. It’s time to rethink SDPD and create a law enforcement system that works better for the people of San Diego. Consider creating different levels of officers for the types of calls that come in. Only the highest level of officer would carry a gun.

    Whatever we do we should not lower hiring standards in order to attract more people. It will cost more in the long run paying out lawsuits.

    Not all law enforcement pertains to criminal activity. It’s time to look for ways where not all law enforcement personnel need to carry a gun.

    1. If you feel that way then , why don’t apply for the non gun toting position then? It’s very easy for everyone to give an opinion and we all know the saying about opinions. First thing to do is take politics out of law enforcement! Second, give these men and women better pay with better benefits! Teach them a better way to police without being soft on crime, and last STOP ASKING THE POLICE TO DO EVERYTHING!!! If isn’t LAW ENFORCEMENT related give it to another agency in the city! Oh and one more thing. For all of those that feel your above the because of your status in the community your not! Telling the mayor or council members are not going to save you because if policing is done right everyone that breaks the law will answer for their indiscretions large or small.

  5. Is this the crack police force that is using slow downs to extort the mayor into increasing its budget and add more bodies? The mayor’s new “get tough” approach to dealing with the homeless will require the city to shift even more money to expand the force. What percentage of the city’s annual budget goes to funding the police now? What is it projected to be in a few years?

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