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Fact Check: Police Chief Offers No Evidence for Media Slam

The San Diego Police Department can’t hire and train new recruits as fast as veteran officers are leaving the force. Chief Shelley Zimmerman says that’s partly because of the “national dialogue” around police officers that the media has fostered. Is there any evidence to back up her claim?

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman talked to a community group in Normal Heights April 16 about one of her department’s biggest problems: It doesn’t have enough officers.

Zimmerman can’t hire police as fast as they’re retiring or leaving for other jobs. The city of San Diego actually has fewer officers now than it did in 2011, when this crisis first pushed the city to commit to spending $140 million to recruit more prospects and train them through new police academies.

UnfoundedAs years passed, that plan wasn’t working, so the City Council and mayor acted again. They increased officer compensation.

It still isn’t working. Now the police union is passing around a new plan, which might allow the city to rehire retired police.

All of this is to say this is not a new problem for SDPD.

And yet, Zimmerman has come up with a new cause of the problem. She’s mentioned it a lot.

It’s us. The media. Or sometimes it’s the “national dialogue” going on right now, suggesting it’s a combination of the media and the public. The dialogue is the one about officer-involved shootings, police aggression and whether communities of color face unjust profiling and violence.

Freelance journalist Andrew Dyer was covering that Normal Heights meeting for Adams Avenue News and caught this quote on tape:

“Think about every single day if you came to work whatever job you have and you were hated. And you were just trying to do the right thing. And you hear on the media, be it the newspaper or be it the TV or be it the radio and there’s negative, negative, negative. … Would you stay in a position like that?” Zimmerman said in Normal Heights.

It wasn’t the first time she brought it up. It’s been a recurring theme.

“We do have some officers that are just getting out of the profession altogether or they’re going to smaller agencies. The national dialogue that’s going on is that they feel that they’re not being trusted,” she said on KPBS in March.

“The media” is a common target of attacks and resentment. Donald Trump has made it into a plank of his national campaign. We’re scum – “totally dishonest people.” He wants to make it easier to sue news organizations and journalists.

And Chief Zimmerman is alleging we’re doing something that’s actually causing a public safety problem.

So is there any data behind the allegation? Is it true? Is the media or the national dialogue about police a culprit in what is happening to the police department in San Diego?

I asked the police department if they had any information, data or anything else to back up Zimmerman’s claim that the media is one of the main reasons people are leaving her department.

I did not get a response.

Across town, Sheriff Bill Gore isn’t having the same problem. When the Union-Tribune asked him about recruitment and retention in his agency, he said he had little trouble finding replacements for deputies who leave. “We try to stay right at even with the number authorized,” he told the paper.

The national dialogue isn’t hurting his recruitment and retention issues.

Helpfully, Councilman David Alvarez recently released his own analysis of the problem, directly addressing this point.

Alvarez’s team found that the city of San Diego has had an officer attrition rate higher than 8 percent for the last three years. It was actually highest in 2014 – just as the national dialogue on policing really started to heat up.

Now, compared to industries in the private sector, an 8 percent voluntary turnover rate is actually pretty good. The hospitality industry, for example, loses almost 18 percent of its employees every year to attrition.

But this isn’t a hotel. This is a police force. It’s very expensive to train police. You want them to stay. That’s why pension reformers in 2012 didn’t cut the pensions of future police officers like they did for other city employees. For even them, it was a step too far.

Unfortunately, city leaders’ efforts to keep police has not helped, and an 8 percent attrition rate does not compare well nationally.

In 2008, a census by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that for departments with more than 500 officers, like San Diego’s, the average rate of officers leaving was 5.4 percent. Alvarez’s report showed Los Angeles with a 3.5 percent attrition rate. We asked and Alvarez’s spokeswoman said they simply could not find a higher rate than San Diego’s anywhere in the country.

Alvarez’s team rejected the chief’s claim that media or complaints about police were turning cops away from the profession.

“If this were true we would expect to see similar retention problems in most other agencies. However … SDPD’s retention problem seems to be much worse than other agencies,” their report read.

And if the chief’s claim were true, the attrition problem in San Diego would be a new phenomenon. But it’s not. In 2008, the department in fact got itself a major evaluation on this very topic from the Rand Corporation.

It was mostly about how to recruit police better. Here was the key breakdown at the beginning.

“We conceptualize that six key factors influence the number of SDPD recruits: (1) job seekers’ propensity to join SDPD; (2) local labor-market conditions; (3) the opinions of community and influencers toward SDPD; (4) recruiting resources, such as the number of recruiters and the advertising budget; (5) efficiency of the department’s recruiting process; and (6) recruiter and resource management.”

And that’s where I found the closest to what might be a case that the dialogue had an effect. Yes “the opinions of community and influencers to SDPD” probably do have an effect on the agency’s ability to recruit and retain officers.

A police officer, Jeffrey Jordon, who was long active with the Police Officers Association, tweeted that officers were leaving because of the city’s decision to freeze their pensionable pay with pension reform. He also blamed bad equipment and facilities that “leak sewage.”

What’s really happening, of course, is demographics.

Three years ago, Zimmerman warned the city that 919 police officers would be eligible to retire within four years.

In other words, now. She knew it was coming, and now it has.

The city of San Diego’s police force has had a terrible run of bad publicity. It faced a rash of misconduct claims. The Justice Department found SDPD’s program for troubled officers was itself troubled. And officers like Zimmerman were surprised to learn that many people in the community felt officers unjustly profiled them.

I’m not sure Zimmerman would tell us not to report any of these issues. She’d probably say we should tell better stories about the good things officers do – the thousands of times violence doesn’t occur because of their professionalism.

I get that.

But when faced with a crisis in her department, Zimmerman decided to use it as an opportunity to drive up resentment for the people voicing their frustrations with police, and the media for airing these conversations.

Because her claim, as it stands, is unfounded.

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