San Diego

SDPD Officer Retention Crisis Trending Toward Smaller Force

The San Diego Police Department (SDPD) is in danger of shrinking. As more officers leave the force, recruiting is becoming a harder job.

"We've seen about a 35-36 percent decrease in the people that are applying," said Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

The high cost of living here and better financial deals elsewhere figure into the problem.

But recruiters worry that police work's demands and stresses don't play well in the labor market .

Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn. said, “We need to figure out 'How do we overcome that?' How do we change the narrative in our profession to get people to want to do this?'"

A big five-year push in recruiting efforts is barely keeping up with the department's departure rate.

The top brass says departments nationwide also are seeing fewer qualified prospects.

Keeping officers is even more challenging, five years after the department began taking extra measures.

The City Council's Public Safety Committee got this reality check Wednesday afternoon.

And another five-year hiring plan may need innovative ideas as well as spending more money.

This month's "actual" number of sworn San Diego police officers -- 1,838 -- is ten percent below the number that's been budgeted for.

And that's even counting 44 who are still in the Police Academy, and 52 now in "field training" – virtually the same number in 2012 when the hiring plan was adopted.

“They're actually going to have fewer officers at the end of this year than they are supposed to the end of this hiring period than they had at the beginning," noted Andrew Keatts, who has extensively covered the issues for NBC 7’s media partner, Voice of San Diego.

Keatts’ remark is based on the current attrition rate of about 150 officers a year.

As it is, San Diego has one of the lowest officer-per-capita ratios among big-city police forces in the nation, while enjoying relatively low crime rates.

San Diego police is earning widespread praise for doing more with less.

But Zimmerman remains troubled.

"There is a shortage of qualified candidates police officers, across our country for a variety of reasons," she told NBC 7 in an interview Wednesday.

Putting aside pay, benefits and cost-of-living factors, police are seeing a workforce that may be less attracted to law enforcement these days, given current social trends and happenings within the profession that add controversy to its dangers and demands.

Public safety resources are too paramount to discount in terms of human resources.

"And without having a sufficient police force,” warns Marvel, “I just don't know if our department can continue to do what we do every day and rise up to that level without really burning people out."

SDPD’s civilian employees also have been hard to retain.

They now number 510–47 under what's been budgeted for, an 8 percent deficit.

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