City, county law enforcement see staffing shortages, pivot to adaptive policing
As violent crime ticks up both locally and nationally, police departments everywhere are suffering from staff shortages.
In Santa Barbara County, the reasons behind the shortages vary from budgeting issues from the pandemic’s economic impacts to recruiting troubles.
For some, the problem has been exacerbated in the past two years. For others, it has been this way since the Great Recession.
Whatever the case may be, many departments have had to adapt and change the structures of their department, or reassign officers to patrol to keep up with 9-1-1 and radio calls.
At the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, the pain point is recruitment, according to Sheriff Bill Brown.
“I think we’ve been fortunate in the Sheriff’s Office — we haven’t had as difficult of a time in recruitment and retention as some other agencies have had,” the sheriff told the News-Press, singing praises of the office’s Human Resources Bureau. “The thing is, recruiting has definitely gotten a lot harder. There are fewer people that are applying.”
Sheriff Brown said this, on top of the fact that only 2% of applicants can typically pass the strict recruitment process and end up hired, has made filling positions a challenge. He said the office hasn’t lowered its standards either.
“We’ve had to adapt in many different ways as a result of some of the changes that have occurred in the recent past,” Sheriff Brown said. “We’ve adapted well, and we are still trying to send a message that this is a noble profession and it’s a great career. Despite the challenges, despite the problems as an organization and as individuals, we’re still very upbeat about what we do.”
Santa Barbara Police Chief Bernard Melekian told the News-Press that there are multiple reasons for staffing issues. COVID-19 slowed down the recruiting process, he said, and hiring was slowed when candidates couldn’t take physical agility tests and fill out written exams because of the pandemic.
“We’ve had a real shortage in dispatch, which is a national problem,” the interim police chief said.
The struggle to hire enough dispatch operators nationally has intensified over the past year or two, according to USA Today. At least at the Santa Barbara Police Department, Chief Melekian said seven officers — none of whom were on light duty — have been reassigned to dispatch.
The city’s budget authorizes 142 sworn officers.
According to the police chief, there are 123 officers on the books, but functionally around 108, factoring in seven in dispatch, three in the academy and a constant flow of seven or eight injured on duty or off work, one on military leave and more.
“All of that presents a significant challenge to us, but we’ve taken a number of steps to address that,” Chief Melekian said.
These efforts include a $3,000 recruitment bonus for any city employee who recommends a qualified applicant, along with looking at civilianizing some positions.
“I think there’s no question that the environment that we’re in has not been good for morale. We have lost some senior people who have decided to make other life choices,” Chief Melekian said. “I think we’re seeing that not just here, but around the country, and I think the number of people in the pool of applicants applying for this job is smaller than it has been historically.
“That in all candor is a trend that’s been true for the last decade.”
Up north, the Lompoc Police Department is seeing staff numbers so low that it had to cut back on various community services to put more officers on patrol, according to Capt. Kevin Martin.
“All these positions that were not patrol-related, we had to put on patrol just to be able to do what our primary function is, which is respond to calls for services needed by the community,” he told the News-Press.
He said the staffing numbers have been improving recently as businesses reopen.
But Capt. Mark noted the problem’s biggest problem is its budget.
Lompoc officers’ salaries are significantly less than many of the other agencies in the county, which Capt. Martin said has made it increasingly difficult to hire lateral officers — officers with previous police experience.
All new police officers have to go through an extensive six-month academy and a 21-week training program.
“From the time we hire somebody until they’re in a police car by themselves is right about a year,” Capt. Martin said.
The Lompoc Police Department’s problem has consistently been the competitiveness of its salaries, Capt. Martin said. And for some time now, he said the Santa Barbara Police Department has hired numerous Lompoc officers as laterals.
The Lompoc Police Department trains them, then other agencies offer them more money.
“That’s really what our goal is … hire these people but work with the city to make sure that we can retain those officers as they develop these skill sets and the expertise that it takes to do this job,” the captain said.
Capt. Martin said he has 44 of the 48 officer positions now filled, which is the best number in recent years.
Previously, the low was 33 of 48 positions filled. Capt. Martin said that was “a huge number to be down on for a small agency like us.”
The chief custody deputy for the Sheriff’s Office told the News-Press that the office’s “systemic staffing deficit” stems primarily from the Great Recession.
Over the years, Deputy Vincent Wasilewki said, the agency hasn’t been able to recoup those positions on either the law enforcement or custody side.
“It’s always been our contention that we have been understaffed, at least since then and arguably even before then,” Deputy Wasilewki said.
Regarding the national tone toward law enforcement borne out of the 2020 George Floyd protests, the chief custody deputy concurred with Sheriff Brown that it doesn’t make recruiting any easier.
“There’s an awful lot of that that’s being felt all around the country, that law enforcement agencies everywhere are really struggling with,” he said. “It’s not as popular to become involved in law enforcement. That’s a hurdle we all have to deal with … It is another factor that we didn’t have to deal with two and three years ago.”
While it seems police departments are facing an uphill battle with a push in 2020 to defund them altogether, duty still calls, so many have figured out how to adapt and work with their circumstances.
In Santa Barbara, Chief Melekian said the department is taking a more problem-oriented approach to policing, identifying top priorities and assigning people accordingly.
His main focus areas now are State Street nightlife, homeless encampments, waterfront hotels and traffic problems.
“We have historically been a full-service police department that responds to everything,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at that list and see if there are things we can either stop handling or handle in a different way.”
Sheriff Brown said that as his department remains down more than 90 positions since the Great Recession, it prioritizes first-line law enforcement and custody operations.
“They become the focus of our efforts, and we want to make sure we have all of those bases covered, and we do,” he said. “It fluctuates from time to time.”
And the Lompoc Police Department responded to concerns over recent crimes by creating a new three-officer Special Investigations Unit, which will have the flexibility of investigating top priorities at any given time. Right now, that’s gang violence.
“California’s always led the nation in new ways of policing. A lot of times what you see here will show up on the East Coast because of how we address problems in different communities,” Capt. Martin said. “As far as nationally with the tone toward police officers, it really is one of those things that we see these trends happen from time to time. The pendulum will swing to an extreme at some point, and swing back into a middle area best for all parties involved.
“I think we’re going to see that pendulum swing back. There’s a lot of support for law enforcement today, and we’re still going to go out and do the jobs we’ve been hired and taken an oath to do.”