Murphy is a retired sheriff captain who worked in the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department from 1965 to 2003. He volunteers with the San Diego County Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation and lives in Ramona.
I retired from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department after nearly 38 years of active duty, having worked in nearly every area of the county. I continue to take a close interest in the department I served and consider one of the best law enforcement agencies in the state, if not the country. Thus, I fear that the dedication and morale of such a department is going in the wrong direction.
When the San Diego County Board of Supervisors decided in January to ask the sheriff’s department and county chief administrative officer to identify strategies and recommendations to address growing staffing shortages, the board showed wisdom and of foresight.
Asking for such a plan was essential because departments across the country are having huge problems recruiting law enforcement officers. As early as 2019, the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., recognized growing issues with officer recruitment and retention and released a 72-page report on the subject. It seems that almost all agencies continue to have growing problems in these areas. Over the past two years, San Diego County’s two largest law enforcement agencies – the Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Police Department – have experienced a significant reduction in hiring rates, an increase significant resignation rates and a massive increase in retirement rates.
The sheriff’s department seems to be trying to be proactive instead of waiting for it to implode. It was smart thinking.
Here’s why: First of all, it’s cheaper. Competitive contracts designed to attract and retain quality officers for a large agency like the sheriff’s department cost a fraction of what cities and counties are forced to pay to rebuild organizations that have been allowed to atrophy. In addition, maintaining staffing levels protects the healthy balance between new officers, experienced officers and senior officers. When staffing problems are allowed to escalate, officers who can leave frequently do so, resulting in low morale, organizational dysfunction, and huge costs to replace them. Finally, when jurisdictions allow their law enforcement to implode, these communities decline economically and in every other way. In short, when law enforcement staffing issues are reactively addressed, it is often too late.
The sheriff’s department’s plan was heavy on recruiting and low on retention, but all agencies are doing the same thing when it comes to recruiting and incentives, so no one will be able to get out of this problem just by recruiting. According to the department, the number of deputies departing in fiscal year 2020 exceeded total hires by more than 70, and last fiscal year 28 more deputies departed than were hired. In calendar year 2021, the department lost 252 sworn deputies, more than half of whom retired. It was the highest total in five years. As of June 7, 200 deputies have left. These are telling numbers, and deserve an answer to the question, why?
We also need to extend the service of experienced tenured officers who still wish to serve. Their services and experience should be appreciated by the public and be an asset to any agency. More importantly, some sort of incentive to retain these officers once they are eligible for retirement would reliably alleviate staffing shortages.
According to conversations with recruiting staff and field agents, recruiters may generate 100 applications for the academy, but on average less than two of those applicants end up serving as law enforcement agents.
There are many contributing factors – potential cadets are weeded out by the rigorous background checks, physiological testing and physically demanding training. Rotating shifts from night to day and then back again can be detrimental to health, and MPs leave because of the lack of consistency in their shifts, as well as the mental stress of having to deal regularly with criminals in the community or in prisons.
Honorable and courageous MPs feel unappreciated due to a lack of support from the community and leadership. Some are even despised due to the actions of a bad officer who is often hundreds or thousands of miles away – yes, even that is a factor! On top of all this, MPs are forced to work days off due to lack of staff.
It is in this context that the value of extending the service of experienced officers beyond the usual retirement age (50-55) while bringing in new, younger officers becomes clearer.
The public fails to realize that only a small minority of officers achieve full retirement with their home agency. But once they’re at that point, extending their service for another two, three, or five years becomes a reliable way to smooth out staffing shortages. It is extremely unlikely that after 30 years of service, older officers will resign to “find themselves” or begin to exhibit problematic behaviors. At this point, they have shown that they “care” and will be willing to mentor these newly hired assistants.
If we are to avoid the problems that come from being reactive instead of proactive, it starts with a more ambitious strategy, and I’m sure there are more ideas than those expressed here.