We’re in the midst of a police-staffing crisis. You wouldn’t know it, because policy makers are not talking about it. Police unions and chiefs alike have been sounding the alarm bell, but no one is really listening.
How bad is it? Well, bad enough that usually tight-fisted public agencies are throwing around signing bonuses to lure officers from one agency to another (laterals). The Seattle Police Department is offering $15,000 for lateral officers. Here in California, the cities of San Mateo and Seaside just approved $30,000 signing bonuses, Palo Alto offers $25,000, San Diego offers a $15,000 bonus, Monterey and Santa Cruz offer $20,000, and Fremont offers $10,000.
The competition for officers is fierce and is fueled by many factors: a huge wave of retirements, an anti-police narrative that is both keeping people from entering into the profession as well as pushing them out, a strong economy, and a lower interest in pursuing policing as a career in general. It’s a perfect storm with catastrophic impacts: applications are down, resignations are up and a huge retirement bubble hangs over police agencies.
This is especially true in San Francisco. In 2018, we had 171 officers leave SFPD, as of last month, we had 152 leave in 2019. The 2018 loss of officers is approximately 9.5% of the SFPD’s approximate sworn staff of 1,800 officers. While, that number is scary, here’s what should scare you more. Of the last two police academy classes that have gone through both academy coursework and field training, only 43% of recruits that started the academy finished their field training to become fully “street ready” officers. Meaning, at that rate, we’d have to have 400 applicants pass background and begin the academy just to tread water.
Treading water without a lifeline isn’t a survival skill, it’s simply a way to prolong drowning.
When I wrote above that we had approximately 1,800 officers, it’s not an accurate measure of the number of officers able to respond to 9-1-1 calls. For example, 172 officers are assigned to the Airport, over 100 officers are out due to injury (this is a typical number) and over 500 are assigned as investigators or in administrative functions. Generally, we have between 1,000 to 1,200 officers who are working the street and responding to emergencies.
The lack of hiring impacts us in one area: patrol. That is why the announcement that the Department wants to change its 9-1-1 response time goal from a public goal of 4 minutes to 8 minutes is disturbing. Especially since measuring the true response time shows the SFPD is averaging 7 minutes. By accepting a longer wait time for police response to the most pressing emergencies sends a clear signal that the Department expects things to get worse.
While there’s been lip service that we need more officers, an actual funded plan and a realistic strategy to implement an aggressive hiring effort does not exist. This should concern us all.
Our elected leaders and the Chief need to treat our staffing crisis as exactly that: a crisis. They cannot afford to wait any longer. Consider that it takes approximately 18-24 months to get a candidate from application to completion of our Field Training program. Which means that any plan put into effect today won’t have an impact in our neighborhoods for two years.
Finally, our leaders must take into account how their actions are perceived by current and prospective officers. Yelling “F@%K the POA” while flipping the bird at a campaign event sends a despicable message to everyone who wears, or is thinking about wearing, a badge. It’s not exactly the video material for a recruitment video. Creating a hostile work environment is no way to recruit or retain quality officers, who quite frankly, are in high-demand across the country, especially here in the Bay Area.