The need to beef up San Diego's police force was spelled out in alarming detail at City Hall Tuesday.
Officers are leaving faster than they can be replaced, in a department stretched far too thin after years of budget cuts.
And there’s some troubling fallout on the streets.
Priority response times for patrol officers are trending upwards – which also means that calls involving issues such as burglaries, drug-dealing, disturbing the peace, vandalism, graffiti and vagrancy are taking more and more of a backseat.
"All you have to do is call 531-2000 for non-emergency situations and often times you'll be on hold,” says City Heights community activist Linda Pennington. “Also, if you call 911 you often get put on hold -- just because of the staffing."
Pennington praises the undermanned police force for keeping crime statistics as low as they have been lately, especial given a patrol volume of more than 400,000 incidents a year.
However, Pennington added in an interview Tuesday: "If you don't have a priority call, if it's just 'quality of life' issues -- which are incredibly important in the big picture -- then you're going to have to wait. And you may not even see an officer."
SDPD's staffing is remarkably low for a city with a population upward of 1.3 million and 372 square miles to patrol.
Its "officers per thousand residents" ratio is 1.5 -- compared to 2.5 for LAPD and 2.7 for San Francisco police.
To residents in what can be high-crime areas, patrol often don’t seem to be visible or close enough at hand to serve as a reliable deterrent to gangs and drug pushers.
“The rumor goes around, ‘Well, you know what? We can go over there and do ‘whatever’ – there’s no cops watching,” says City Heights resident Linda Vazquez. “The call it like a safe spot, so if they’ve got plenty of dope, they know where to go.”
Vazquez says that while calls about emergency situations often bring a number of officers to the scene, “I don’t think they have enough for the little stuff – only the big stuff. At night, I don’t travel because there’s not enough police around.”
A city auditor's report discussed Tuesday by the City Council says response times alone don't tell the story of how effective patrol operations may or may not be.
It recommends using more dispatch information and community input to pinpoint targets for additional funding and manpower.
Since 2009, the department’s strength has dropped from more than 2,100 sworn officers to fewer than 1,900.
Under a five-year, stepped-up budget strategy adopted last year, that decline was to be reversed and the lost manpower restored.
But that dynamic has yet to materialize.
Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who addressed the City Council’s afternoon session, says greater financial incentives are needed to keep the department ahead of the attrition curve.
She noted that 162 officers left the force during the fiscal year that ended Monday – many to better-paying law enforcement agencies, some offering signing bonuses – while just 159 new officers were added, a net loss of three.
More than half of the officers on the force are eligible for retirement within a four-year time frame.
“That's why it's so critically important that we continue to hire in large numbers and that we retain our officers for as long as we can,” Zimmerman told NBC 7.
She also pointed out that more than half of SDPD’s patrol officers have six or fewer years of experience.
“And so just because you graduate from the police academy,” Zimmerman said, “it doesn't mean that you have the skill set immediately to go out and work a lot of these specialized assignments. It takes years upon years to build up that expertise."
However, there’s concern among the department’s brass that the latest "washout" rate among police academy recruits was 27 percent.
Council members are awaiting a consultant's study that compares the total compensation provided by a wide range of Southern California law enforcement agencies, which is expected in late September or early October.
“And that,” says Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee, “could be the basis for re-opening contract talks with our police officers, to insure that they’re getting the same kind of pay as agencies ‘across the street’ are getting.”