San Diego police officers line up. Photo by Chris Stone

The city of San Diego is preparing to open contract negotiations with the San Diego Police Officers Association, far earlier than planned, in the latest attempt to stem a flood of uniformed employees leaving the force, officials said Wednesday.

Any new agreement would replace a five-year contract that went into effect two years ago. The current deal gave officers improved benefits but withheld salary increases until the final two years.

The San Diego Police Department employed 1,817 sworn officers as of July 1, the lowest level to begin a fiscal year since at least 2000, Chief Shelley Zimmerman told members of the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee. That number had fallen to 1,809 as of Tuesday.

The issue of retaining experienced officers has been a headache for many years now for city officials who have failed to resolve the problem. More recently, recruiting has suffered for a variety of reasons, including the image of law enforcement in the wake of controversial shootings around the country.

Brian Marvel, the SDPOA president, said the number of sworn employees could drop below the 1,800 mark in the next two weeks, based on pending retirements and resignation notices. He said that despite five years of heightened recruiting efforts, the department has suffered a net loss of a dozen officers.

“It really does boil down to staff, and pay, and benefits,” Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said.

Talks between the city and SDPOA could begin as soon as next month.

“The City Council will have the opportunity to provide direction to the labor negotiator in closed session to help us ensure that we have meaningful changes to improve our ability to recruit and retain a dedicated team,” Zimmerman said.

How much the city can provide to officers is questionable, because the city is expected to face a second straight tough budget year in 2018. The city avoided making cuts this year, but might have to reduce general fund spending next year.

Zimmerman and Marvel spoke during committee discussion over a pair of reports — an update on implementation of a consultant’s examination of the SDPD in 2015 in response to past officer misconduct, and a report on the department’s upcoming staffing, equipment, technology and infrastructure needs.

According to Marvel, the Police Executive Research Forum study highlighted a need for more staffing, particularly of sergeants who have direct oversight over patrol officers.

He said the SDPD has been employing 11 to 23 percent fewer sergeants than called for in the city’s budget.

“In essence, they are being filled with acting sergeants who lack the training and authority of full-fledged sergeants,” Marvel told committee members. “This lack of authority has had a negative impact on our ability to monitor officers’ work.”

Currently, the SDPD has 30 vacant sergeant positions, about 10 percent of the budgeted total, he said. The department also has 96 fewer detectives than called for in the budget, or 30 percent less, he said.

“The chief is being tasked to manage a department that has not been this small since the late 1980s, but the demands for service are exponentially greater today than they were back then,” Marvel said. “Staffing matters.”

Zimmerman said the SDPD communications center receives 1.3 million to 1.4 million calls a year, despite San Diego being one of the safest big cities in the country.

All 40 recommendations in the PERF report have been implemented, she said.

Regarding upcoming needs, the chief said the Traffic Division station in Serra Mesa must be replaced, and a backup communications center should be constructed for use in an emergency. The police shooting range needs renovations and the four elevators at the downtown headquarters break down repeatedly, she said.

–City News Service

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