Report: SDPD continues to struggle with officer shortage

SAN DIEGO -- A chronic shortage of officers in the San Diego Police Department has gone unresolved over the past five years and is likely to worsen before it gets better, officials told members of a City Council committee Wednesday.

The deficit between the number of officers called for in the budget and actually employed by the city remains stubborn despite efforts to improve compensation.

SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman told members of the council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee that the budgeted number of sworn police officers was 2,039, while the actual number was 1,832 -- a deficit of 207.

In a similar report at about this time last year, the difference was also about 200 officers. In 2015, the shortage was about 160.

The ranks of those actually employed by the San Diego Police Department includes 44 recruits in the academy and 52 recent graduates who are in field training, according to the report.

The stubborn problem is the result of years of poaching of SDPD officers by other law enforcement agencies and a large number of experienced officers reaching retirement age. More recently, societal issues -- including high- profile police shootings -- have dissuaded many younger people from pursuing a career in police work, leaving unfilled positions in recent police academies, Zimmerman said.

Some fear that they'll make a mistake and end up on the next YouTube video, while others have had family members talk them out of taking a police job, she said.

"Despite all of our outreach, we have seen a 36 percent decrease in the number of applicants applying to be San Diego police officers over the last two fiscal years," Zimmerman said.

The result is that an academy class beginning next month that could fit 43 recruits will only have 24, the chief said. She said another problem is that only 5 percent of applications are accepted -- often because job-seekers have been convicted of a felony or a DUI, or failed drug tests.

"What we are experiencing here in San Diego is not unique to our police department -- many police departments across our country are having difficulty recruiting and retaining police officers," Zimmerman said. "It is not uncommon for one police department to travel to another city just to target recruiting their police officers. We have had that happen here, but we have also done that."

Retirements have also been a problem. Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, warned that more than 600 officers -- almost one-third of the force -- will become eligible for retirement over the next five years. He said it's difficult to tell who will take the opportunity to retire immediately and who won't.

Since the start of the current fiscal year last July 1, 125 officers have left the department, with at least 15 going to another law enforcement agency, according to the report. Another 20 applicants who were given conditional job offers or were in the process of completing the background investigation to become San Diego police officers opted out in order to join another department.

The current attrition rate is 13 officers a month.

According to Marvel, the staffing level is just 11 officers higher than 2012. By this summer, employment will be lower than five years ago, he said.

"The result -- less proactive policing, significantly increased response times and overwhelmed investigators," Marvel said. "The situation will only get worse with every recruit class that goes unfilled, and an inability to retain our officers."

City officials several years ago began offering inducements to stay, such as raising uniform allowances that provided greater take-home pay.

A five-year contract between the city and SDPOA took effect in 2015 will raise salaries by 3.3 percent in each of the final two years. The first three years provided increased city health benefit contributions and holiday pay.

Zimmerman said the staffing shortage would be "dramatically worse" without the extra benefits.

The news was much better among dispatchers, who not long ago faced a staffing shortage that required 911 operators to work substantial amounts of overtime and delayed call responses. Capt. Jerry Hara said only four of the Communications Division's 133 jobs are now vacant.

Of 557 civilian positions in the SDPD, 48 are vacant, the report says.