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Civil Grand Jury Report Critical of Sheriff’s Department Practice of Mandatory Overtime

The panel outlines five findings and 10 recommendations, but Sheriff Bill Brown says strategies already are underway to boost recruitment

Santa Barbara County Jail Click to view larger
An assessment of a timeline and costs for implementing video arraignments at the county’s Main Jail and the Northern Branch Jail are among recommendations listed in a report by the 2017-18 Civil Grand Jury. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department needs to take steps to ease mandatory overtime, especially for custody deputies, by boosting efforts to fill empty slots and studying the human toll of working long hours, according to a government watchdog panel.

The 2017-18 Civil Grand Jury recently released its first report, titled “Mandatory Overtime in the Sheriff’s Office,” criticizing the long-standing practice. The panel included five findings and 10 recommendations in the report.

Grand jurors noted that overtime is expected during natural disasters, crises, illness or other situations, but they were critical of the department's operations under Sheriff Bill Brown.

“However, substantial, sustained overtime requirements, including a mandatory overtime policy for custody deputies for most of the past 15 years, raise important questions about the sheriff’s office priorities, commitment to personnel and management of resources,” the report states. “The jury also understands the sheriff’s office mission is broad and complex, and tough budgetary tradeoffs are a constant.”

Custody deputy vacancy rates over five years between 2001 and 2017 ranged from less than  1 percent to 11 percent, and averaging 6 percent. Law enforcement vacancy rates ranged from 5 percent to 13 percent, and averaging 8.6 percent for the same time, according to grand jurors.

“The jury found no evidence that the sheriff’s office has made it a priority to find ways to avert mandatory overtime,” the report states. “Recruiting, in budgetary terms, is a low priority.”

For many years, the Santa Barbara County Board of  Supervisors approved overtime budget requests, grand jurors said, adding that the trend appeared to provide few incentives to address chronic problems.

The agency’s $136 million spending blueprint sets aside $7,200 for recruiting, much of which is used to administer tests, the report stated. 

Filling vacancies can be complex because of a five-step hiring process governed by California law that weeds out large numbers of applicants, according to the report. For instance, in 2016, the agency had 906 custody applicants with 29 hired, and 1,711 law enforcement applicants with 33 hired.

Grand jurors noted the shortage meant that custody deputies during the daytime must sign up for 11 overtime shifts during each four-month rotation period while those working nights must sign up for nine extra shifts.

Among the recommendations, the grand jury called for the sheriff’s office to consult with a recruiting firm, and for the board of supervisors to direct that a survey be conducted to determine how recruiting and personnel policies, including incentives, compare to other law enforcement agencies.

The panel also instructed the board to authorize a comprehensive staffing study “to provide a clear understanding of staffing requirements, shortfalls and costs.”

To ease the burden on the custody transportation staff, responsible for carting inmates to courts in Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria, grand jurors said the board should direct a near-term assessment of a timeline and costs for implementing video arraignments at the Main Jail and the Northern Branch Jail once open and any impact on custody deputy staffing.

Additionally, the sheriff’s office should assess what duties could be handled by civilians, contractors or retired depuities, grand jurors said.

The sheriff's office has 60 days to respond to the report, and the board of supervisors has 90 days.

Brown said department leaders "strongly disagree" with the finding alleging that recruitment is a low priority. 

"On the contrary, recruitment is one of our highest priorities and will remain so," he said. "Also, independent of the grand jury’s report, we have developed and implemented a number of strategies in regards to our recruitment. We have already taken steps that are in alignment with the grand jury’s recommendations. While this is a challenging time for law enforcement recruitment, we are up to the task."

The sheriff’s office management team touched on the topic during last month’s budget workshops — a sneak peak for June hearings.

Brown  and his management team spoke about overtime, noting that the department has spent more than $7.5 million on overtime, which is $4.7 million over budget on average annually during the past five years.

Undersheriff Bernard Melekian unveiled a "three-year plan" to reduce the vacancy rate to 3 percent from 6 percent, eliminate overtime costs going over budget, and more. The proposal would add 14 law enforcement deputies in year one and lower the overtime budget by $900,000, add another 10 deputies in year two, and then lower the overtime budget in year three to $750,000.

The department’s leaders recognized that changes were needed to reduce overtime staffing, Melekian told the board.

To boost efforts at filling the vacancies, the sheriff’s office established a 20-person recruitment team and will go to college campuses, military bases and job fairs — steps that had not been taken in recent years, Melekian said.

The department also made it easier for a candidate to apply for a custody slot if someone didn’t qualify for the law enforcement deputy job.

Members of the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriffs Association said they welcomed the report on the chronic understaffing that union leaders have cited for years and presented during results of the membership surveys in 2016 and 2017.

“Despite our best efforts to sound the alarm on these important issues, the sheriff never took substantive action to remedy the staffing shortages in the county's jail system or in patrol deployments,” the statement said. “The apparent solution to insufficient numbers of custody and patrol deputies was to rely almost entirely on excessive overtime, as indicated in the grand jury report.”

Brown is running for re-election against two challengers, Lt. Brian Olmstead and Lt. Eddie Hsueh.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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