San Diego Police Department chief Shelley Zimmerman
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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.

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Comments

shamus Sept. 14, 2017 @ 7:30 p.m.

Oh my god, she was working under cover and saw a young kid do drugs? Did she receive disability pay immediately and life time counseling? While it is a legitimate issue if we are not paying a fair wage to our city employees, she might not be the standard bearer for such complaints. What are we on the hook for her retirement? Between her and dumanis we're going to pay what, half a million a year for their retirements? Sometimes it is appropriate to shoot the messenger. What genius hired her knowing she was gone so quickly? It appears that employees aren't being over paid but their bosses feel they are owed a great deal. Maybe we can make adjustments to make it more fair for everyone.

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AlexClarke Sept. 15, 2017 @ 7:45 a.m.

The real estate industry in San Diego built Temecula and Murrieta. Those that can not afford those places locate in Hemet. Nice spacious homes with 3 or more bedrooms, 2 - 3 baths, nice sized lots, 2 - 3 car garages sell for under $400k. The traffic pouring out of Temecula/Murrieta in the mornings (and going back in the evenings) is bumper to bumper. Many people who work in San Diego (city/county) do so because they can raise their families in a clean affordable environment. Police officers make much more than the average hourly worker and still can not afford a decent home, or any home for that matter, anywhere in San Diego. San Diego Police Department is a place to start, get training and them lateral to a department in an area that has affordable housing. The average patrol officer in San Diego has less than three years on the job. San Diego has always paid less than departments in cities of comparable size. It ain't rocket science.

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maddtaxpayer Sept. 15, 2017 @ 8:18 a.m.

If you want to know what the police are doing to protect us, listen to a scanner. It is amazing what they deal with on a daily basis. It is definitely a tough job to police a city that shares an international border with Mexico. I have a greater respect for our officers that are first in line to protect us. It is NOT Easy. I too would want to leave the city after work. All this AGENDA 21 housing is too much density in too small of an area. People don't like rabbit hutches for housing.

The public sector has been promoting public servants that promptly retire FOR YEARS. This abuse is rampant on every level of government especially here in California. They create the income disparities everyone is complaining about. At this rate, no one will be able to afford to live here. System is clearly broken. It appears that we have all become "servants to the public sector". All This Is UNSUBSTAINABLE!. And now the county is on the hook, thanks to the county supervisors recent action, to pay more to SEIU workers. WE are constantly asked to pay more and more and we must do it all with less. Whereas the private sector is expected to save for their own retirement, pay for their own health insurance all the while the public sector want more and more. INCOME DISPARITY and Housing unaffordability increases due to the Demands of the Unionized Public Sector. Where and when does this all stop?

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AlexClarke Sept. 18, 2017 @ 6:50 a.m.

So your answer is to pay all public sector workers less and reduce their benefits. The reason the private sector wages have been stagnant for 40 years as the private sector unions have been decimated. Most private sector workers are "at will" employees with no contract with their employers. They are at the employers whim. Their employer can lower their wages, eliminate benefits and the employee has no recourse and no protections. Unionized workers, private and public, have a written binding contract with their employers. The union and the employer negotiate and arrive at an agreement. Except for police and fire most public sector workers make far less than you think. In San Diego the average retirement pay for public sector workers is $26,000. The news media always reports the high retirements of public sector (non union) administrators. In everything you do, buy a car, rent, mortgage, credit card, cable tv, etc, you sigh a contract. Everything your employer does he does by contract. Having a contract is normal except with employer/employee. If unionized employees believe they didn't get a good deal they blame the union reps and vote against them at the next election. If the public is unhappy with what public sector union employees are getting they blame the union. The blame lies with the government negotiators. As a non union employee you have no protections and are at the mercy of your employer.

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monaghan Sept. 16, 2017 @ 12:54 p.m.

As part of the current pendulum swing toward "restorative justice" in public education, there are no more drug busts in San Diego Unified schools, just uninterrupted drug sales in the bathrooms.

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JustWondering Sept. 17, 2017 @ 7:26 a.m.

Michael Blott: The San Diego Regional Public Safety Training Institute (SDRPSTI) is part of the Public Safety program at Miramar College. This program follows the guidelines of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) and serves law enforcement agencies throughout San Diego County and beyond. There is network of regional academies throughout the state.

It really isn't the San Diego Police Academy, and hasn't been that way for more than 20 years. It is staffed by many of the participating agencies, with a majority of staff members derived from SDPD and SDSO the two largest agencies in our region. The Institute uses a cadre of Instructors and professionals paid by the College as adjunct professors as well as subject matter experts from various fields.

Besides they regular law enforcement academy, there is an second one for "limited duty, and court services deputies" or those work in the Courts and Jails. Pay for these deputies is lower, and many use it as a stepping stone to becoming a full law enforcement officer.

For those who attend the academy the costs are borne by their agency. It's only when an officer who has already been trained and then "laterals" to another agency that the training cost are saved. Unfortunately with the high cost of living and the low wages (in comparison) by the City of San Diego, many of its trained officers find lucrative offers for their skills and services elsewhere.

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