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Is Deficient Recruiting the Real Reason for Police Understaffing in San Diego?

Whenever there is a shortage of police personnel in a California city, a common reason cited is inadequate pay. When officers at a particular agency are paid less than their counterparts at some other agency, so the theory goes, they quit in order to start working where they can make more. This seems to be sound logic. But is it supported by facts?

According to a new study “Analysis of the Reasons for San Diego Police Department Employee Departures,” released last week by the California Policy Center, the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Authored by Robert Fellner, research director for the Transparent California project, the study’s findings contradicted the conventional wisdom. They were:

  • Claims that SDPD officers were leaving to join other departments misrepresented the data on attrition, by focusing on the 10% who left to join other departments, instead of the 60% who retired.
  • These claims also misrepresented the overall data regarding staffing and recruitment, focusing on approximately 20 people leaving in a department of nearly 1,800 while ignoring the fact that there were 3,000 applicants for open 25 positions.
  • In support of these claims, a misleading study, funded by the city of San Diego, only analyzed base pay, the only category of pay San Diego didn’t boost in their 2014 pay raises for the SDPD.
  • This same study compared San Diego to one of the most expensive cities in the world – San Francisco and other totally different markets, instead of comparing SDPD pay to rates of pay in neighboring cities.

One thing that is not in serious debate is the fact that the San Diego Police Department is understaffed, like many other police departments in California. But the reason they are understaffed is a result of poor recruitment efforts. Fellner writes:

“The City’s ability to recruit new candidates would be seriously compromised when budget decisions in FY 2009 and FY 2010 resulted in the City cutting its quarterly academy class sizes from 50 to 25. In FY 2011 the City cancelled all but one academy class, a decision that ‘resulted in a lost opportunity to add approximately 57 additional recruits.’

And what did happen after the hiring freeze of 2011 ended? The SDPD received over 3,000 applicants for just 25 positions in its first academy class of 2012, according to 10News. This is symptomatic of a larger trend – a tremendous, unmet demand to work in law enforcement in the San Diego area. For example, the following year the nearby San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received over 4,000 applicants for their 275 deputy positions.”

There is no shortage of people who want to work in law enforcement in San Diego. Surely a few hundred of these many thousands of applicants are qualified to do the work.

While the facts don’t support the assertion that San Diego is losing police officers to other departments, the facts do support an alarming loss of officers to retirement, a problem that is getting worse. But if recruitment isn’t a problem, what difference does it make if officers retire in great numbers?

The problem is the cost for these retirements take away funds that could be used to pay for more police academy classes, and more active officers on the force. To fund an adequately staffed police force, San Diego could have reduced retirement formulas to the levels they were back in the 1990’s – i.e., reducing them back to levels that are fair and financially sustainable. Instead, to induce veteran officers to delay retiring, San Diego joined several other California cities in implementing “DROP,” which stands for “Deferred Retirement Option Program.”

In general, the way DROP works is this:  A retirement eligible employee agrees to freeze their retirement benefit accrual and continue to work, usually for five more years. Then, while they continue to work for the city and get paid as an active employee, the pension they would be earning if they had retired is paid into an interest bearing account. When they retire, the entire amount accrued in that pension account is paid to them in a lump sum, and from then on they begin to directly collect their pension.

Take a look at Transparent California’s listing of San Diego’s pension payouts in 2013. Nearly all of the top pensions are police and fire personnel who received massive lump sum payments under the DROP program. This is a scandalous waste of money. The primary reason SDPD officers leave their department is to retire. So instead of investing in recruitment and training efforts to replace retirees, the San Diego implemented the DROP program, at staggering expense, to retain veterans a little longer.

As always, the power behind these distortions of logic and perversions of policy are the government unions. Unlike the police officers themselves, who almost invariably want to serve their communities and make a positive difference in people’s lives, government unions thrive on fomenting resentment and alienation. The more anger they can manipulate their members into feeling, the more righteous indignation those members will bring to city council meetings, and the more dues they will willingly pay to purchase candidates for local office. Ultimately, what government unions thrive on is the failure of government, because the worse things get, the more money they will demand to fix the problems.

Inadequate pay is not the reason SDPD has a staffing shortage. Excessive pensions, the staggering expense of DROP, and a failure to fund recruitment efforts are the reasons why. The unions would have you think otherwise.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

San Diego Police Losing Officers To Lucrative Retirements, Not Other Departments

Editor’s Note:  The following article addresses an ongoing debate:  Are local police departments in California where pension reforms have been enacted, San Diego and San Jose in particular, losing officers and new hires faster than they can replace them because of these reforms? Readers of this article are encouraged to also read the response posted on the San Diego Police Officers Association’s Facebook page, along with this tweet, and this tweet, posted in response by a VP for the San Diego Police Officers Association. Debates over the facts, assumptions, and moral issues envelop literally every facet of public sector compensation and benefits, but a few things should stand out. For example, San Diego is paying pensions to its retirees with 25 years or more of service that are significantly more than they are paying in base salary to their active officers and detectives. There’s something wrong with that picture, whether or not the pension fund is adequately funded – it is not – and whether or not, overall, San Diego’s active police officers are underpaid.

Over the past several months, San Diego media outlets have issued a flurry of news reports asserting that San Diego police officers are underpaid and that this is “why the department is losing officers.”

There’s just one problem. The facts don’t support this narrative.

Yes, 162 San Diego police officers left the force in Fiscal Year 2014, but only a handful went on to other departments. Additionally, 160 new hires were made, resulting in a net loss of two officers in a force of 1,836.

Of the 162 who left, only 17 — or just 10 percent — left the San Diego PD for another police force. 90 percent of those who left did so for retirement, medical retirement or miscellaneous reasons.  Last year, San Diego lost less than 1 percent of its officers to other agencies.

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The main driver of attrition is found in what is waiting for police officers in retirement – DROP payments that can top $500,000 and ongoing retirement payouts that are often higher than their current base pay.

According to Transparent California, in 2013, the average San Diego police officer retiree who had at least 25 years of service credit prior to retirement received an annual pension benefit of $94,425. This excludes chiefs and assistant chiefs, which would raise the average further. The average years of service for these retirees was only 28.78, suggesting that many police officers take advantage of the ability to retire as young as 50 and still receive their maximum pension benefits.

A further breakdown of this data by job title provides even more insight into why so many police officers are retiring from the SDPD. In the City’s study claiming its police officers are underpaid, it reported the average base pay for a SDPD “Police Officer I or II” to be $62,598. The average pension for retired Police Officer I or II was $76,586 in 2013, or over 20 percent more than the average salary.

A similar comparison for the positions of detective, lieutenant, and captain shows that pensions are routinely higher than average base pay.

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Part of the popular narrative is correct: Police officers are leaving the San Diego Police Department for higher pay. It’s just that they’re finding that higher pay in retirement, not in competing departments.

The U-T San Diego reported that half of San Diego police officers will be eligible for retirement by 2017. Should the SDPD find themselves facing a legitimate staffing crisis at that time, it will be because of a system that offers virtually no incentive for an officer to continue working past the age of 50, not the allure of higher paying jobs elsewhere.

Increasing pensionable compensation for current officers — something the city is considering to keep officers from leaving — will only compound the problem.

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About the Author:  Robert Fellner is Research Director for TransparentCalifornia.com, a joint project of the California Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute.