San Diego Police Department chief Shelley Zimmerman
Since July 2015, at least 32 San Diego police officers have left the department to join other law-enforcement agencies — according to exit interviews the departing officers gave the department.
“Those are the people who told us, but we’re pretty sure that others who’ve left also went to other agencies,” said Sgt. Lisa McKean. “They aren’t required to disclose that.”
Officers took jobs with the Coronado police, the county sheriff’s department, the Chula Vista police, as well as other local departments, San Diego Police Officers Association president Brian Marvel confirmed. Others have taken jobs outside the county and with federal agencies.
“We lose officers to Murrieta — it’s the closest place they can afford to live, and after commuting for a while, they decide they’d like to work closer to home,” one supervisor said.
Cops bailing out of the SDPD is one of the signs of how tough fixing the city’s chronic understaffing is. The department now has about 1825 officers, though it is funded for 2040, McKean said. About 600 — a third of its officers — could take their full retirement but remain on the job.
"The attrition rate is currently three officers a month leaving for other agencies, and just last week one officer left for Carlsbad PD and one officer left for Hemet PD," said police chief Shelley Zimmerman. “Why the city council thinks it’s okay to lose police officers after we’ve spent $190,000 training each officer, I just don’t understand.”
The loss of police officers at a time when the number of cops is already low — and there’s an obvious solution — is so important to Zimmerman that she responded directly to my inquiry and called in the early evening hours after getting my message mid-afternoon. At the budget hearings earlier this year — and not for the first time — city-council members seemed to brush off her statement that the recruiting and retention problems come down to pay. Instead, they offered suggestions on how to find potential cops. One councilman gave the impression with his comments that police standards were too high.
Councilmembers also suggested recruiting at colleges and street fairs, which the department has been doing for some time, cops say.
Zimmerman has been steady and persistent in her message to the city council: “We should be the highest paid law-enforcement agency in the county. We’re not even close,” she said. “I’ve said it to the city council at many meetings.”
San Diego isn’t the only city that’s having difficulties recruiting and retaining police officers. In January, The Economist ran a story about police departments across the U.S. having trouble finding new hires.
One traditional source for new hires, the military and its honorably discharged veterans, is still a good source of candidates. But, said a department human resources staffer, the candidates are pickier and harder to come by.
“They know about retirement benefits and that local housing costs mean they will raise their children in apartments or in Murrieta,” Chula Vista police Capt. Fritz Reber said. “They care about pay, especially since the job means putting your life on the line.” Meanwhile, the attrition continues.
The sheriff’s department has taken in four San Diego cops, including one who had retired, according to spokesman Ryan Keim. He declined to speculate on why the three officers had left, but pay would certainly be a good reason.
Three years ago, Voice of San Diego fact-checked a claim that an experienced cop at the sheriff’s department will earn $18,000 more a year than at the police department and found it to be true.
Reber confirmed that his department has hired cops away from San Diego — including cops who’ve recently retired. It doesn’t always work out, he noted. A few years ago, Chula Vista hired three San Diego cops who worked in Chula Vista for less than a year, then returned to the San Diego department.
“Officers moving around among agencies isn’t unusual,” Reber said. “But it spikes when there are discrepancies in pay.” Officers haven’t gotten a raise for ten years — then-mayor Jerry Sanders first declared a staffing emergency in 2006 when the department had more than 1900 officers. Today, San Diego cops earn up to 20 percent less than cops at other local agencies. But the city seems more concerned with the fact that giving officers a 1 percent raise costs the city about $1.6 million, numbers he provided in a statement.
Though pay is the main issue behind the steady loss of San Diego cops, uncertain benefits are also a concern, according to police officers association president Marvel. Then there’s that constant conversation about city employees’ retirement funds that leave many employees feeling off-balance. That isn’t going to end soon, Reber said, because CalPers raised the 2017 city obligation to its retirement fund from 13.9 percent to 15.5 percent, or about $324 million for all city employees for the current fiscal year (which begins every year on July 1).
But for Zimmerman, who heads a department that’s about 13 percent short on staff, pay is the first and biggest issue. It’s the one she hears every time the department loses an officer to a different agency. “My officers tell me they love the job and the department but they can’t afford to stay,” Zimmerman said. “At other agencies they can take home another $1000 a month.”
San Diego Police Chief Knows of What She Tweets
On Wednesday, after the San Diego City Council voted to allow cannabis cultivation and manufacturing in some areas of the city, police chief Shelley Zimmerman put out a tweet showing the Union-Tribune's front pages 33 years apart. One leads with the story that 73 people were busted for dealing drugs at Patrick Henry. The other says the city has made growing weed legal. The Patrick Henry High School bust is particularly meaningful for Zimmerman. In 1984, she spent three months undercover, posing as a junior at the school while she bought drugs — enough to result in 73 arrests.
"It was unbelievable what I saw. I saw a kid doing lines of either cocaine or meth after he laid them out on his desk," Zimmerman said.
corrected 9/14, 5:55 p.m.