For most people who live "down the hill," as San Diego's backcountry residents refer to everything west of the mountains, the thought of living "on the mountain" usually ends when the subject of work arises. Jobs are scarce and low paying around Julian, Warner Springs, Pine Valley, Borrego Springs, and Campo, and commutes into the city are long and can be dangerous.
One group to whom these problems don't apply is the 27 deputy sheriffs who work in the department's rural-enforcement division. They get paid higher than deputies in other divisions of the county. And, since they are required to live in their service areas, they have no commute. Still, it's not always easy for the sheriff's department to fill positions in its rural posts. Lieutenant Ken Culver, who oversees all of the rural division, offers an explanation. "Historically, positions up here have been looked at as very desirable positions, and typically they've been filled by senior, more experienced deputies. What's happening now is that candidate pool is shrinking."
The "candidate pool" for positions in the rural division doesn't include new deputies. "They need to be experienced deputies," Culver says, "before they come out here. We don't do any initial field training out here. Typically, in the sheriff's department, a candidate would hire on, do some time in one of the county's jails, then rotate out to a patrol assignment at one of the major stations. Then they might be considered for a more specialized spot like this."
By one measuring stick, crime in the rural-enforcement area of San Diego is half of what it is in the whole San Diego region. "The rate out here," Culver says, "is 15.6 crimes per thousand. By comparison, for the San Diego region, it's 32. So our crime rate in rural is half of what it is countywide. And I think that we're less afflicted by the predatory kinds of things that fill the newspaper. It tends to be more juvenile issues, teenagers getting into trouble, property crime, vandalism, burglary."
Despite the lower crime rate and less-violent nature of the crime in rural areas, Culver insists experience is more necessary in backcountry law enforcement than it is in urban areas "because they work so independently," he says. "A deputy that's out taking care of some situation, his closest cover unit would be a half hour away, 45 minutes away, or more. So that deputy needs to have the answers. He needs to be very, very self-sufficient. That comes with experience. The guys who work out here are very self-sufficient. They are independent, problem-solving kinds of people. Each of the rural stations has one supervisor who works 40 hours a week. So most of the hours of the week, there isn't going to be a supervisor on duty. So the deputies work mostly on their own, largely unsupervised, or supervised from a considerable distance. So they have to be dependable, experienced deputies."
Culver says the average deputy who transfers to rural has six to eight years of experience on the job. And though, occasionally, someone is promoted out of rural and returns to town, the well-worn path is to work out of a rural office until retirement. "The two deputies in Borrego Springs," Culver says, "one of them has been on that beat for, I think, 18 or 19 years. And the other one is not far behind that. So we have two deputies with over 35 years of experience just in Borrego Springs. So the institutional knowledge that we have in those deputies is very valuable."
The sheriff's department offers a financial incentive to work in rural. "They receive a 10 percent premium," Culver explains. "In round numbers, if a deputy in Lemon Grove made $50,000 a year in base pay, if he moves up here he'll make $55,000."
Deputy Keith Dalton, who works in the Julian area and carries the rank of corporal -- itself a 5 percent pay raise -- makes about $70,000 annually. "Assuming I was corporal down in town, I would be making about $63,000 down there."
Despite the extra pay, deputies don't seem to be tripping over each other to get to the rural posts. Lieutenant Culver bristles at the suggestion of a hiring crisis for rural enforcement. But when a deputy was promoted out of the Julian station recently and Culver put out the call for transfer requests from the department, he received only two requests. An opening in the Campo office drew four. Sergeant Rod Gilmore, who patrols the area around Pine Valley, says the creation of the rank of corporal, and its 5 percent pay hike, has softened the incentive for officers working in urban stations to move out to rural. "Certainly, there was a time," Gilmore says, "when people said, 'Hey, I can make 10 percent more by going out there,' and that was pretty attractive. However, we now have a corporal position that is between top-step deputy and sergeant. And we have many corporals throughout the department. So they get 5 percent more than a top-step deputy, so that narrows that gap of that 10 percent. Now [working in rural division], is really only 5 percent more than you could make at some other assignment in town."
The difference between the $55,000 the hypothetical deputy in Lemon Grove whom Culver spoke of earlier can make by moving to Campo and the $52,500 he can make as a corporal staying in Lemon Grove is only $2500 -- seemingly not enough to make him want to make the move. Because, as Culver says, "If they don't already live out here, you're asking them to change their lifestyle. A deputy in Lemon Grove can live in Encinitas. That's not the case here. The deputies that work Julian live in Julian. Their families are here. Their kids are in the schools here. They're very integrated into the communities. That's really the defining nature of rural enforcement."
"Quite frankly," Dalton says, "since there are so few of us, it's kind of a high-profile position in the community. So we're often approached to become involved with a community, whether or not you're actually involved with that organization. It may be a Rotary, or a Kiwanis, or a Lion's Club. They may form a committee regarding some community issue, anything from a youth program to mitigating parking problems to parades -- we have an annual Fourth of July parade that's put on by our merchants' association. We sit as members on that committee. We like to say you're not just a deputy sheriff up here, you're the department. Because to these people, that's what you are.