First of three parts
Law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California are still scrambling to rebuild their rank-and-file staffs three years after a national reckoning on policing triggered a wave of officer retirements and resignations.
As police agencies mark the first day of National Police Week on Sunday, May 14, officials throughout the region insist an infusion of new officers is needed to combat forced overtime, stress, burnout, work-related absences and safety concerns among existing sworn officers working on depleted staffs.
But at the same time, demands for racial justice and police accountability in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and others have left police departments nationwide struggling to hold onto the officers they have while attracting new ones to bolster their ranks.
The staffing crunch has hit the region’s largest agencies the hardest, but midsize and smaller police departments from Torrance to Riverside and Huntington Beach to Pomona also are trying to plug significant staffing gaps.
Interestingly, the agencies find themselves essentially in competition with each other to either hire so-called lateral transfers — experienced officers who jump from one agency to another — or find recruits to undergo more time-consuming police academy training.
“Hiring has picked up. Unfortunately, it is not keeping pace with those resigning or retiring,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. He told NPR the crisis is challenging law enforcement in ways he’s never seen and that policing is in “uncharted territory.”
Nearly 200 law enforcement agencies reported hiring more sworn officers in 2022 than in each of the previous three years. However, they were losing officers faster than they could hire new ones, with 50% more resignations in 2022 than in 2019 and 20% more retirements in 2022 than in 2019. As a result, total sworn staffing has dropped nearly 5% in the past three years, according to the latest PERF survey released in April.
“They’re all talking about a decline in those who want to be police officers and an acceleration in those who are retiring early or resigning altogether,” Wexler said.
Largest agencies hit hardest
Among the region’s largest law enforcement agencies, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has more than 2,000 unfilled deputy positions on a force budgeted for 10,400 sworn officers – a shortfall of nearly 20%.
The department — the largest sheriff’s force in the world and fourth largest law enforcement agency in the country — provides policing for about half of the incorporated cities in L.A. County as well as unincorporated county areas.
“Unfortunately, over the past year, our department has lost hundreds of deputies to resignations, often to other law enforcement agencies,” the department said in a statement. “A vast majority of the resignations are deputies that have less than five years on the department. The quality of our training makes them an enticing candidate to recruit for other agencies.”
The staffing shortage has forced deputies to work up to 120 hours of overtime each month to take up the slack, which in turn increases emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, and contributes to on-duty injuries and absences.
“Recruitment efforts to lessen the burden on those working patrol assignments is a priority as deputy exhaustion in the field raises safety concerns for the department,” the statement said.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Police Department — the nation’s third-largest municipal law enforcement agency — is trying to ramp up hiring to help offset 922 retirements and 383 resignations total in 2021 and 2022.
Currently budgeted for about 9,100 sworn officers, the LAPD aims to hire an additional 740 officers in the upcoming fiscal year to shore up its ranks in an effort to reach pre-COVID pandemic staffing levels, said Capt. Robin Petillo, who is in charge of the department’s Recruitment and Employment Division
Petillo said staffing shortfalls at the LAPD have yet to reach critical levels affecting routine patrols or police response times, but officers occasionally are needed to backfill vacancies on overtime. As a result, LAPD supervisors are trained to look for burnout, she said.
Statewide, the California Highway Patrol is looking to fill 975 vacant positions, 120 of them in the Southern Division stretching from the Malibu coastline to the Inland Empire and from the beaches of the South Bay to the Antelope Valley.
The force — the largest statewide law enforcement agency in the nation — last year launched a campaign called “Join the CHP 1,000” to attract new recruits. The agency does not hire lateral transfers.
City police forces
Locally, municipal police agencies are experiencing staffing shortfalls as well.
The Riverside Police Department is budgeted for 431 sworn personnel and currently has 83 vacancies, a rate of nearly 20%, though 23 of those are new positions created under a tax passed by voters in 2016 tax to bolster city services.
“We are currently at par nationwide with vacancies seen due to retirements, resignations and normal attrition,” Officer Ryan Railsback said. “But we have also experienced the same anti-law enforcement sentiment and legislation as seen up and down California, and nationwide for that matter, that has made recruitment and retention efforts more difficult than we have ever had to endure.”
The Long Beach Police Department, funded for 824 sworn officers, had 97 vacancies as of February, equaling nearly 12% of its workforce. In an effort to minimize the impact of staffing shortages on any one area, Police Chief Wally Hebeish ordered officers from throughout the department to work one mandatory overtime patrol shift each month.
Rich Chambers, president of the Long Beach Police Officers’ Association, has said the shortage is causing burnout among overworked officers and required detectives who do not routinely work patrol to retrain with newer technology, such as body-worn cameras and computers in police vehicles.
The Long Beach department is in the process of training 41 new officers while another group of recruits will begin attending the academy this month.
The Torrance Police Department, funded for 217 sworn positions, has 37 vacancies, a 17% gap that the police chief said in January is not sustainable if the department is to maintain the same level of public safety and service to the public. Detectives have been forced to work patrol shifts.
Among Orange County’s largest communities, Santa Ana is funded for 354 sworn officers and has 30 vacancies and Huntington Beach is funded for 230 sworn officers and has about 35 vacancies. Garden Grove is funded for 182 officers and has five vacancies, while Anaheim is funded for 408 sworn positions and has only eight vacancies.
The Ontario Police Department is budgeted for 295 officers and has 13 vacancies. A spokesperson said the department experienced a wave of retirements during the pandemic in 2020 and, over the past two years, five officers have resigned to take jobs in other states. The department also has seen a drop in applicants.
In El Monte, the Police Department is budgeted for 122 police officers and has 10 vacancies. Chief Jake Fisher said that as with most agencies, the shortage has forced more officers to work mandatory overtime.
“We have to force our officers to work quite a bit of overtime. It does negatively impact officer wellness and safety,” Fisher said.
Historically, he said, the department has always fallen short of its budgeted staffing, even more so when COVID hit in 2020. “We are just now catching up. We need to stay aggressive with our hiring goal,” said Fisher, who added that seven officers transferring from other agencies and 13 recruits are in the background check process.
The Redlands Police Department, one of the smaller police agencies in San Bernardino County, is budgeted for 91 sworn personnel and has nine vacancies.
In a statement, interim Police Chief Rachel Tolber said the department “faces similar challenges in recruitment and retention as those felt across the U.S.” But as a result of proactive recruitment efforts, she said, the Redlands Police Department currently has seven cadets in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Academy and three officers in field training.
In Pomona, the Police Department is budgeted for 169 sworn officers and has 17 vacancies. Police Chief Michael Ellis said his department has undergone staffing challenges on patrol and in its dispatch center that have been managed through increased overtime.
The San Bernardino Police Department, perhaps an anomaly among Southern California municipal police forces, has seen an increase in staffing levels despite 34 resignations and 15 retirements from 2021 through 2022, said Capt. Nelson Carrington, head of the department’s investigations division.
The department, which is budgeted for 297 officers, now has 258 working in the field and 23 cadets in the academy.
“We’re at a high right now that we haven’t had in a long time,” Carrington said.
However, despite the increase in personnel, the department still has to deal with an increasing attrition rate. “So the struggle continues,” he said.
Sheriff’s staffs OK in Riverside, Orange counties
Two sheriff’s departments in the region – in Riverside and Orange counties – report they have weathered the storm on sworn staffing.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said his department is “steadily growing and has to turn people away.” However, he said it could use 350 more corrections deputies to fully staff the John Benoit Detention Center in Indio and another 171 deputies to fully staff the county’s other jails.
“It does highlight the hard time of keeping up with attrition despite the large number of people we are hiring,” Bianco said.
In Orange County, the Sheriff’s Department has 1,887 sworn deputies and only 89 vacancies. The agency said its staffing levels are “naturally dynamic” due to lateral transfers and the influx of new recruits to offset normal employee attrition, which has resulted in the exit of 432 deputies over the past three years.
‘A really difficult time’
Dic Donohue, director of the RAND Center for Quality Policing and a retired sergeant with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said police agencies are doing their best to keep their heads above water with staffing.
“It’s a really difficult time with a lot of different pressures,” Donohue said. “They are just trying to put bodies in patrol cars and trying to fully staff shifts.”