By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Sheriff recruits, via San Diego Sheriff’s Department
January 30, 2022 (San Diego) – San Diego County Supervisors on January 25 unanimously approved a request by East County Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond to resolve an anticipated shortage of law enforcement officers as vaccine mandates, retirements, COVID-19, recruitment and retention issues impact staffing levels.
The Board directed the Chief Administrative Officer to work with the Sheriff’s department and return to the board with updates and practical recommendations to address future public safety staffing shortages.
A survey by the San Diego Police Officers Association in September found roughly 90% of SDPD officers said they oppose vaccine mandates and 45% would rather be fired than comply. It remains to be seen how many will actually choose to lose their jobs rather than get vaccinated, once the city of San Diego starts firing officers who refuse to comply with the new mandate.
The Sheriff’s department does not have a vaccine mandate, but none-the-less applications dropped 25% over the past year and 36% from 2018 to 2021.
As of December, only 43% of the county’s 2,400 Sheriff’s deputies had been vaccinated, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. It is unclear whether the drop in applications may be linked to fear of a possible future vaccine mandate, or fear of contracting COVID-19 on the job.
COVID-19 has also taken a toll; COVID is now the top killer of law enforcement officers in California and the nation, as ECM recently reported. In 2020 and 2021, 476 officers lost their lives to COVID-19 – far higher than any other line-of-duty cause.
As of October 2021, two Sheriff’s officers working in corrections had died of COVID, which can also increase sick leave and disability.
While not having a vaccine mandate may boost retention, it can also potentially increase liability. Civil rights attorneys recently filed an injunction against the Sheriff seeking protection for clients in county jails, where COVID infections and deaths are rampant among inmates and staff. More than 2,500 people serving time in county jails have been infected with COVID-19 and several have died.
Cal Matters reports that the Omicron surge has strained police agencies statewide, forcing some agencies to increase overtime, reduce services and reroute non-emergency calls to online portals, a CalMatters poll of over 30 agencies in California found. Yuba County, which has the state’s highest COVID hospitalization rate, had its sheriff call in reserve officers as the virus spread through its ranks, while Mount Shasta had half its police force out with COVID, forcing the Police Chief to pull duty shifts and dispatchers to work seven days in a row.
Attrition in the ranks may also be related to new police oversight at state and local levels in the wake of recent racial justice protests. That oversight includes citizens’ oversight panels in several local jurisdictions, body-worn cameras, and new reporting requirements on serious use-of-force incidents.
Staffing shortages come at a time when more prisoners are being released early to reduce crowding in jails and slow the spread of COVID. Statewide, some crimes such as smash-and-grab retail thefts are on the rise, though it is unclear whether short staffing of police was a factor in those crimes. But short staffing unquestionably increases response times and investigations of some crimes.
Options to improve retention and recruitment could include educating officers on the risks of COVID-19 in their profession, easing mandates, bolstering recruitment efforts within the community and beyond county borders, increasing pay or benefits, and more.
The Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement to nine incorporated cities (including Lemon Grove and Santee in East County) as well as the vast unincorporated areas that encompass rural, mountain and desert communities.
The Sheriff’s Department also plays an important regional role serving as the Regional Mutual Aid Coordinator. Under this role, deputies respond to assist cities during times of need, and have done so in response to civil unrest and riots occurring in El Cajon and La Mesa. Deputies assist if called upon by other law enforcement agencies to help with emergency evacuations and the Sheriff’s Department supports both incorporated and unincorporated areas of the County through regional services such as the crime lab, arial support to regional law enforcement agencies (ASTREA), special enforcement detail, bomb/arson, property and evidence, and search and rescue missions.
“I am glad that our Board of Supervisors took action today to ensure that people living in the County feel safe and protected, especially City of San Diego residents who may be losing hundreds of SDPD officers this year,” shared Supervisor Anderson. He added, “I am thankful to my colleague, Supervisor Desmond, for partnering with me on this important and necessary step in keeping our communities safe.”
“Public safety is the number one priority for government. Families and communities must feel safe. With violent crime rising, it is imperative that San Diego County have the necessary public safety officers,” said Supervisor Desmond. “These brave men and women have put themselves in harm's way and now are looking at staffing shortages, which will lead to burnout. We must make sure they have all the tools to help them succeed.”