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Santa Monica Police Force Faces Record Shortage of Officers
 

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By Jorge Casuso

April 15, 2022 -- The Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) is facing a record shortage of officers, with one-fifth of its budgeted force missing from action, according to data provided by the Department.

And while the budgeted force has seldom, if ever, been fully filled, over the past two years there has been a surge in retirements, a dearth of new recruits and a large number of officers on medical leave, the data show.

Of the 221 sworn officers approved in the current 2021-22 Fiscal Year budget, only 174 are working the streets, leaving the Department 47 officers short of its budgeted deployment, the data requested by The Lookout show.

Accounting for the shortage are 16 vacant positions that have not been filled, and another 31 officers who are currently on medical leave -- 21 due to long-term injuries. The other ten are on light duty working a desk job due to injury or pregnancy.

The "historically low" staffing levels come as Santa Monica recovers from the COVID emergency declared in March 2020 and is "reestablishing itself as a bustling tourism and business destination point," police officials said.

Both the coronavirus shutdown and the May 31, 2021 riots that rocked the City 14 months later have made it more difficult to recruit and retain officers, officials said.

In 2020 and 2021, a total of 33 officers retired from the force, with another six retiring so far this year, the data show. Another three officers have transferred to other law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, the health emergency brought recruiting new officers -- a long and arduous process -- to a virtual standstill, with only 12 new officers joining the force in 2020 and 2021.

"We've been short in the past but nothing like this," said SMPD spokesman Lt. Rudy Flores, who joined the Department as a cadet 30 years ago.

"Although we are working hard and we are confident in our recruitment and hiring strategy, it is evident that we are a long way from filling the vacancy losses from the past two years," Flores said.

RETIREMENTS AND TRANSFERS

Police Department officials point to the events of the past two "tumultuous" years for contributing to what is likely a record exodus of officers.

The number of retirements accelerated a trend that began before the pandemic, when a total of 40 officers retired from the force in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the data show.

An "internal/informal polling" found that "working under the duress of the global pandemic" and "the social unrest" were major factors, Flores said.

In addition, "a perception that public safety did not have public support, coupled with staggering personnel shortages, had a significant impact on our ability to maintain our personnel staffing in many areas of the police department."

In addition to retirements, three officers "transferred to agencies closer to their families," Flores said. Two transferred out of state and one to northern California.

"Our informed opinion is that the members that separated reached a saturation point in their public safety career and decided they would leave before retirement age, opting for something different," Flores said.

FEW NEW RECRUITS

Over the past two years, the number of new officers sworn in plummeted from 49 recruits between 2017 and 2019 -- or an average of 16 a year -- to seven in 2020 and five last year.

"During the pandemic, hiring of personnel slowed down tremendously," said Flores.

"All of our part-time background investigators were laid off due to budget cuts, police academies were shut down and Human Resources did not have the capacity to process new employees."

It takes a minimum of 18 months to recruit, train and evaluate a new officer before they are sworn in, police officials said.

Each new recruit must undergo a written test, a physical fitness qualifier test, background and psychological testing, medical screening and a polygraph test.

"The attrition rates are high because we demand the best and most qualified member of the community, moreover, it is what our public expects," Flores said.

"As a result, it leaves only a handful of vetted and qualified candidates to choose from."

Those who make it to the Academy are then "continually evaluated" and must complete in-field training and probation, which can lead to the loss of another 10 to 15 percent of the recruits, officials said.

While SMPD has seen an increase in the number of lateral recruits from other Police Departments, police chiefs have preferred to hire new recruits they can train and mold, Flores said.

"There's a culture here," he said. "Some of our neighboring cities don't do it the same."

Besides, Flores said, lateral recruits still have to undergo a lengthy hiring process similar to the one for new hires.

"It's less time, but not a whole lot of less time," Flores said.

MANY ON MEDICAL LEAVE

In addition to the exodus of veteran officers and a dearth of new recruits, the Department has been hard hit by the large number of officers on medical leave, police officials said.

Currently, a total of 21 officers are on medical leave with long-term injuries.

"Many of these injuries are as a result of wear and tear due to demands of the job," Flores said. "Carrying forty pounds around your waist everyday is no fun.

"Everybody walks around with injuries," he said. "Once the doctor says it's permanent, they're done. They don't wait thirty years."

But over the past two years, the pandemic and civil unrest have "increased physical and psychological strains and demands," Flores said.

In addition to the officers on long-term medical leave, there are ten officers who are on light dury due to less serious injuries or pregnancy working desk jobs, according to the data.

The schedule for when officers may come back from medical leave is unpredictable, Flores said.

"Some might come back next week, others may never come back."

"A CRITICAL JUNCTION"

The record low staffing shortages are across the Department, which has seen the total number of sworn officers and professional staff drop dramatically, from a total of 490 in 2019 to 370, police officials said.

In a statement to The Lookout, The Santa Monica Police Officers Association (SMPOA) agreed the staffing shortages have dramatically worsened.

"For quite some time, but most notably the last couple of years, the Santa Monica Police Department has been faced with significant labor shortages," the union wrote in a statement Monday.

"Santa Monica is a relatively small city surrounded by the 2nd largest city in the country, that combined with our idyllic beach front setting makes us one of the most in-demand destinations in the world.

"Substantial and topflight public safety resources and personnel are required to keep our resident and tourist population safe," the statement said.

The current staffing falls far short of the number of officers needed for a population of 93,000 residents that swells on the busiest days to more than 300,000, the POA said.

"As our nation and City rebounds from the loosened pandemic restrictions, we will continue to see significant increases in our daily population from tourism, visitors to our local businesses, and hotel occupancy as large venues open throughout LA County," the state said.

"We are at a critical junction and The Santa Monica Police Officers Association calls on city leadership to work with us to bolster our ranks and give our department the resources we need to ensure safety in our community."


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