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San Diego faces new spike in police officer vacancies that union blames partly on COVID vaccination mandate

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit
“We’re going to need to do everything we can to not only retain who we have but also to recruit new folks,” San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit says.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Staffing gains from large pay raises given in 2017 have been mostly reversed in recent months.

San Diego is experiencing a rash of police officer vacancies that threatens to reverse major staffing gains over the past four years that brought the city near its longtime goal of surpassing 2,000 officers.

A decrease of more than 100 officers since September is being blamed on the city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for employees, relatively low pay, a tight job market, low morale among officers and other factors.

“I think the vaccine mandate is the No. 1 reason,” said Jared Wilson, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association labor union. “We need to turn this around.”

The number of officers had declined from 1,956 to 1,884 since San Diego announced its vaccination mandate in August. Police Chief David Nisleit said Feb. 2 that 37 more officers have filed exit papers, dropping the count to 1,847.

That nearly reverses four years of gains since the city in 2017 gave officers 25 percent raises over four years to help boost recruiting and retention. The number of officers had fallen to 1,826 before the pay hikes.

The city’s longtime goal has been to surpass 2,000 officers, with 2,036 the specific number Nisleit has been working with in recent years.

City Councilman Chris Cate said the lack of officers is reducing patrols in many neighborhoods where crime is on the rise.

“A major reason I voted against the citywide vaccine mandate was because of its effect on our public safety,” Cate said. “We are seeing those fears come to pass.”

Mayor Todd Gloria has called the mandate a crucial move. “We know that those who are vaccinated and boosted have a lower risk of severe symptoms, hospitalization and death,” he said last month.

Regarding the city’s officer shortage, Nisleit said most of the trends he follows don’t look promising. Applications are down 25 percent, the monthly rate of officers leaving has climbed from 12 to about 20, and a few hundred officers are scheduled to retire by 2025.

Since the 2017 pay increases, new hires have outpaced retirements and departures by roughly 40 to 50 officers per year. Nisleit said he expects that trend to reverse this year, with the number of officers decreasing by about that much.

“It’s something we are paying attention to and that’s concerning to us,” Nisleit said. “We’re going to need to do everything we can to not only retain who we have but also to recruit new folks to build that number and try to get back north of 2,000 officers.”

He said a new 50-member police academy will begin this month and that department officials may revive signing bonuses and other incentives that had helped shrink the number of officer vacancies.

Wilson said a decision this week by city officials to begin handling vaccination exemptions more quickly will likely help stem any further departures over that issue.

He said federal and state agencies have been quicker to grant exemptions than the city. He also expressed confidence that the city would approve most applications for exemptions.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction on that,” Wilson said.

But Wilson said the staffing situation will continue to be bleak without more pay increases.

Wilson said the 25 percent spikes were great but that they mostly just made up for a nearly 10-year period when officers essentially got no raises at all.

In addition, granting large raises over a relatively short period encouraged many officers to enter the city’s deferred retirement option program, which gives workers incentives to retire five years into the future.

Wilson said that’s one reason so many officers are scheduled to retire in coming years. In fiscal 2025, 85 officers must retire because of that program, while 83 must retire for that reason in fiscal 2026.

Those retirements will be in addition to normal retirements by officers not in the special program but who have reached retirement age.

“It’s unsustainable,” Wilson said.

He said a new study comparing San Diego with 18 other law enforcement agencies determined that the city is about 10 percent below the median level of compensation.

In addition to the vaccination mandate and relatively low pay, Wilson said some officers have sold houses in what they perceive as an inflated market and moved to less-expensive areas. He said others have become stay-at-home parents because of child care costs.

Wilson said nationwide protests and rising crime rates also have made law enforcement a less appealing career to many.


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