The San Diego Police Department’s staffing level has fallen to new lows. We have 38 fewer officers at the end of fiscal year 2017 than when we had on July 1, 2016.

CommentaryBack in 2006, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders declared a staffing emergency when the SDPD reached 1,912 sworn officers. Staffing is already 100 officers below that number today and the department will likely go below 1,800 sworn officers in August.

It’s time to analyze this critical problem and its impacts so city leaders can come up with the right solutions.

The Police Executive Research Forum’s assessment of the SDPD produced a series of recommendations to correct the department’s shortcomings. Leaders have sought to promptly address them, particularly as they relate to supervision and training.

Yet despite the best efforts to bring about change, inadequate SDPD staffing has continued to produce massive vacancies for sergeants and detectives, and the department has been forced to fill these crucial openings with current patrol officers and officers who train new recruits. Depleting the number of officers who are trained to teach others perpetuates the cycle of insufficient preparation, supervision and accountability noted by the Police Executive Research Forum’s assessment. It does not take an experienced detective to recognize the obvious pattern to these troubles and they can be easily summed up: SDPD does not have the staffing to meet expectations – its own or the communities it serves – and releasing feel-good stories and positive crime statistics is not going to change that.

Expectations related to response times and proactive patrols to detect and prevent incidents before they happen are going to suffer further setbacks in the immediate future. Compounding the problem are further demands that will soon be made on the officers who remain. Enacted legislative changes like the Racial Identity and Profiling Act of 2015 will require extensive data collection related to every police contact, and it goes into effect in 2018.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

While the information collected under this law may yield more insights and produce better dialogue on police interactions than the limited traffic stop analysis conducted by San Diego State University, there are consequences to it. Notably, SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman has stated before the City Council that meeting the law’s provisions will require SDPD officers to spend in excess of 17,000 hours annually collecting the data. This obligation will weigh down the SDPD as calls from local business owners and residents related to quality of life and homelessness continue to overwhelm officers.

At some point, politicians and professional and community activists who continually demand more and more from the SDPD need to understand that sworn officers are not in the position to do any more now or in the foreseeable future without immediate help to increase staffing.

Since the SDPD cannot thrive while trying to survive its daily staffing crisis, both critics and supporters should step up and remind Council members that the failure of the SDPD’s five-year plan, which set out to increase staffing levels by now, is unacceptable.

Further analysis could provide insights into how the SDPD’s inadequate staffing is impacting citizens. An updated performance audit of SDPD’s patrol operations is a good place to start.

The city auditor should also assess the costs of officer attrition, as 30 percent of police recruits who joined the department over the last 10 years have failed to successfully complete their training. The city’s independent budget analyst office has already noted officer recruitment and retention will be one of the most significant challenges to the city this year, but a cost analysis of officer attrition may be helpful to the mayor’s staff as we head into negotiations with the city.

The information gained by doing this analysis would be invaluable to city leaders and the community.

San Diego Police officers have been asked to do too much, for too long and with too little. The collective efforts of community stakeholders, along with elected officials, are urgently needed to help them. After going nearly 10 years without salary increases, they find themselves paid at least 20 percent less than nearby agencies and enduring working conditions that are significantly worse. Most importantly, SDPD officers have lost hope about whether elected officials possess the desire, ability and courage to change their situation.

To be clear, when a 1 percent pay raise costs approximately $1.65 million to implement across all ranks, it does take courage to find the money and advocate it be spent to end the SDPD’s recruitment and retention difficulties. Without the implementation of significant compensation changes within the department, its staffing will remain inadequate to meet the expectations of a growing community that continually demands more of its officers than ever.

Brian Marvel is president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. Marvel’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here

    This article relates to: Opinion, Police, Police Retention

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    9 comments
    DavidM
    DavidM subscriber

    The President of the police union advocating for higher pay and benefits?   Who'd a thunk it?


    Perhaps a better question for study is whether the staffing "requirement" is really a necessary figure.

    Jay Byrd
    Jay Byrd

    In today's social climate, who would want to be a police officer?  In many minority communities they are not seen as a positive force.  The BLM idiots want them killed.  Lifeguards earn more than the police.  In many cities, they are beaten down by the local politicians.  People on this site balk that officers cannot pass tests.  I liken this to people of means leaving Detroit.  Those who can find safer jobs and better pay go elsewhere.  Having a lower paying job and being the city's scapegoats is easily left behind for others who can't do better. Not saying I believe all officers are incompetent, but going forward it will be harder to recruit. 

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Jay Byrd Mr Byrd, I think you're missing the point.  The problem everyone is agonizing over is the RELATIVE inability of San Diego to attract and particularly retain officers compared to other police organization in our state.  


    By the way, if lifeguards earn more than cops, you'll have to show me the data on that one.  

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Bradshaw: Agree. The sheriff's department and various other municipal police departments aren't having the same problem as SD. The pay scale is available in the annual budget. Lifeguards make less than firefighters and firefighters make less than police (based on a 40 hour work week apples to apples comparison). 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    The numbers don't lie. The Mayor and the Police Chief have failed, miserably, in achieving staffing goals. 

    Robert Davis
    Robert Davis

    Officers who choose to leave and go to another policing agency in California can do ONLY if they've earned their "basic" police officer standards and training, or "POST" certificate. You do this by going to and successfully passing an accredited academy, and successfully completing a field training program.

    While many can pass the academic academy, the physical and "hands on" aspect of police work shoot down many recruits. Those who can't succeed don't earn that certificate and are not eligible to work at other agencies.

    But once you have earned your basic POST certificate the ability to move from one agency to another is wide open. In other words, you're small agency gold and they love mining for you. You see, if you have a basic POST certificate in California, they don't have pay for six months of training. Many, also offer signing bonuses too. So why would anyone work for 20% less money?

    So does everything transfer, well it depends. While time working as a cop does transfer, time on with a new employer, i.e. seniority does not. Retirement benefit may if reciprocal agreements are in place. So the grass isn't always greener some place else. Nevertheless, certain agencies, especially in the Bay Area pay substantially more than the 20% Marvel mentions.

    So what does this mean? It means San Diego, the second largest city in the state, and its taxpayers, will foot the bill for training cops who will eventually go to other agencies. And we will have a perpetual inexperienced police force providing marginal policing.

    Obviously, pay is the issue. You want to retain those you've spent considerable tax dollars training. So now it's the Mayor's job to come up with the ideas to make it so.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Robert Davis Thanks for the rundown.  All we need now is a bunch of money to raise officer's pay.  Let's see, how about a city income tax (News York has one).  How about eliminating all funding for public art?  Too draconian?  How about in increase in city sales tax?  A property tax override?  Nah, we don't need any of this stuff.  All we need to do is work more efficiently and focus on eliminating wasteful spending.  I've got it.  Outlaw ribbon cutting ceremonies!  That ought to do it.  

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    “…30 percent of police recruits who joined the department over the last 10 years have failed to successfully complete their training…..”.  If true, OUCH. 


    SDPD is really picky in the people it selects to join the department.  If, after this careful selection process, which usually takes several months before an offer is made to the candidate, they are losing 30% before the person is completely trained, something is wrong with the process.  These are people drawing nice salaries during training, and losing this number before the person is allowed to operate independently is a huge waste of money.


    Is Brian Marvel an objective observer?  Of course not; he’s a union president and getting ever more money for his people is the primary goal of his job, but in this case, he may be right.  Cops have a unique career situation.  I don’t understand precisely how it works, but an officer unhappy in city A has the ability to “transfer” to another city or county police department and not lose all accumulated seniority, pay and benefits.  In any other profession, someone contemplating such a move must consider what he or she is giving up to, in effect, start over elsewhere.  I’d love to see VOSD provide a complete explanation of how this process works.