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An understaffed SDPD has been forced to make tough decisions with limited resources. Officers still respond to emergencies ahead of the department’s goal, but the department is failing to meet its own standards with every other type of call that comes in.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Police Chief Shelly Zimmerman announced some good news before the holiday weekend: Major crime in San Diego is at historic lows.
It’s a comforting reminder for a city perpetually dealing with hiring and retention problems among police officers. The city may not have as many officers on the street as it says it needs, but that hasn’t translated into dangerous streets.
But the city’s major crimes announcement obscures one big way the officer staffing shortage is rearing its head: Non-emergency calls now go unanswered for hours.
SDPD response times for low-priority calls now far exceed the department’s stated goal, and its performance in 2011, just before the city adopted a five-year plan intended to address the department’s staffing problems.
In short, an understaffed SDPD has been forced to make tough decisions with limited resources. Officers respond to emergencies just as quickly as they did in 2011, and still ahead of the department’s stated goals.
But the department is failing to meet its own standards with every other type of call that comes in.
“We’re short officers, and we’ve maintained response times for emergency calls,” said Councilman Chris Cate, chair of the public safety committee. “That’s great, but something has to give.”
SDPD breaks its calls into five buckets: emergency calls, and then Priority 1, 2, 3 and 4 calls.
Priority 3 calls include loud parties, homeland security checks, calls to pick up evidence, hate crime investigations and taking reports and statements for serious crimes like arson, battery and assault with a deadly weapon.
They also include calls related to requests for “problem-oriented policing,” the centerpiece of the city’s so-called community policing strategy, where officers invest time in a community in an attempt to prevent crime rather than responding to it. Department leaders in 2015 acknowledged they had moved away from community policing, four years after strongly denying they had done any such thing.
Priority 4 calls include parking issues – including the city’s oversized vehicle ordinance – computer crimes, graffiti and reporting lost or found property.
Callers for those crimes now routinely wait more than an hour and a half for a response – in some divisions, Priority 4 call responses stretch past three hours.
The citywide average for both far exceeds the department’s stated goal – goals that were already extended in 2016 due to the staffing shortages. Previously, the department sought to respond to Priority 3 and 4 calls in 70 minutes, but those targets are now set at 80 and 90 minutes, respectively.
In practice, the citywide average response for Priority 3 calls is 92 minutes. SDPD averages a 148-minute response for Priority 4 calls.
Even Priority 2 calls – which include calls for prostitution, trespassing, disturbing the peace, criminal threats with a gun, casing a burglary or for people having a mental health episode — now have an average response time of 41 minutes. The city’s goal is 27 minutes, and in 2011 the department had a 24-minute average.
Faulconer’s office dismissed concerns of SDPD’s handling of quality-of-life calls.
“The report shows that the men and women of our Police Department do a phenomenal job keeping San Diegans safe,” said mayoral spokeswoman Jen Lebron. “We must continue to keep our resources focused and prioritize emergency calls.”
Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, doesn’t necessarily disagree. He just thinks it’s time for the city to stop making the trade-off.
“The crime stats show our officers do an exemplary job,” he said. “But crime stats are not the only metric to determine the safety of a city. It’s great to say that we only have 40 homicides as a city – but if you’re the victim of vandalism, or some other lower-priority call, that’s important to you. You want the police to show up as you would for another call.”
The FBI’s own policy for “unified crime reporting” data warns against using the statistics to rank cities against one another. There are too many intervening variables within an area to use them to stack departments against one another, they say, and doing so creates a misleading impression.
A resident of Pacific Beach, Marvel said, probably isn’t too concerned with the city’s homicide rate. To them, late-night parties, street drunkenness and vandalism are bigger concerns.
“If the only time we come to a neighborhood is when someone is burglarized, residents have concerns,” he said. “They want police to be active in their neighborhoods.”
His police union sees the numbers as evidence for the needs of his budgetary request, a stopgap attempt to deal with the department’s staffing shortage. He’d like the city to budget enough overtime pay so that the commanding officers at every division in the city can meet the recommended minimum staffing level for every shift.
That wouldn’t fix the city’s problem, or allow officers to meet standards for time spent not reacting to a call, but it might get response times back in line with expectations.
“People come to the realization that if I call in a crime, and it’s not an emergency, it’ll take an officer over two hours to show up,” Marvel said. “If you’re busy, you don’t have time to deal with that, so now it’s a higher likelihood you don’t even bother calling. And that’s where you get underreported crime.”
Councilman David Alvarez had just such an experience. In his Logan Heights neighborhood, he witnessed a few people spraying graffiti. He called SDPD’s non-emergency line, and waited for about half an hour. He followed the kids as long as he could, so he could tell the officers where they were. Eventually, with no officers on scene, he had to hang up and get on with his day.
“The data speaks for itself, and reinforces what we’ve heard from the community,” Alvarez said. “We want to maintain the relationship between the community and police. People will stop calling, and deal with the issue in their own way. That leads us down a dangerous path. Good police work includes quality of life issues.”
He said the city should fund overtime for officers as a short-term solution. Long-term, he said, it’s clear the city needs to pay its officers at a level competitive with other departments.
“I’m not going to tell you I have the solution, but clearly doing nothing is not the solution,” he said.
Cate, likewise, said the long-term solution is simple. Response times for non-emergencies, he said, are a visualization of the city’s staffing problem.
“We want officers to be in the community and out of their cars, but it’s tough to get to that point if we are in a position where we can only address high-priority calls,” Cate said.
He offered another possible solution. The city might not need sworn officers, he said, to police some quality-of-life issues, like short-term vacation rental complaints or oversized vehicles parking on residential streets.
“It’s on us, as policy-makers, to figure out what the solution is, and to fund it,” he said. “I might not want a sworn officer spending time writing oversized vehicle ordinance tickets, if a non-sworn officer can do it — I want him out of his car, establishing relationships in the community. But we can never get to that point unless we have more officers on the streets.”