County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to develop plans to address potential Sheriff's Department staffing shortages.
As requested in a letter by Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond, the board directed Helen Robbins-Meyer, chief administrative officer, to return within 180 days with updates and recommendations.
Deputies provide law enforcement for the county's unincorporated regions, along with nine cities.
As suggested by Supervisor Nora Vargas, county officials will also review staffing for related public safety departments, including probation, and county-funded youth programs.
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According to a joint statement from Anderson and Desmond, applications to the Sheriff's Department have decreased 25% during the past year, and decreased 36% between 2018 and 2021.
A statement from Anderson's office said opposition to vaccine mandates would also influence staffing levels, citing a 2021 San Diego Police Officers Association survey that, according to Anderson's office, found that approximately 90% of San Diego Police officers surveyed oppose vaccine mandates and that 45% percent would rather be fired than comply.
While the county has regional mutual aid agreements with other law enforcement agencies, there's a concern that there may not be enough deputies available to serve communities in need, Anderson said.
"It's so important those deputies are there for us when we need them most," Anderson said, adding he wants to get ahead of the issue.
"I live in unincorporated area. I have constituents who live in unincorporated areas that shouldn't feel unsafe at night because there's no deputy to show up when they call 911," Anderson said.
In a statement, Desmond said public safety is the No. 1 priority for government, and with violent crime on the rise, "it is imperative that San Diego County have the necessary public safety officers."
"These brave men and women have put themselves in harm's way and now are looking at staffing shortages, which will lead to burnout," Desmond added. "We must make sure they have all the tools to help them succeed."
Although Vargas voted yes, she said the board letter was "a little premature."
Vargas said the future replacement for Sheriff Bill Gore, who is retiring in February, should have a chance to define the department's mission. Supervisors will meet in March to choose a temporary replacement.
Vargas suggested that the county should look at the root causes of crime and pursue equity-based solutions, including mental health services and drug treatment.
"Our Sheriff's Department has been under scrutiny, and rightfully so," Vargas said, adding that there needs to be fundamental change in criminal justice and policing systems.
"If we really truly want to address public safety we need to look at the ways we can invest in locally-developed, equity-based solutions that take a balanced approach to public safety, including diversion, drug treatment, reentry programs, mental health services, and I think as a county we've made some strides," Vargas told NBC 7.