Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 10:54 pm | Overcast 50º

 
 
 
 

Ron Fink: Public Safety Staff Shortages a Critical Issue

There is something wrong with how Lompoc city political leaders view their responsibilities to provide an experienced public safety-response package for the city.

In November 2016, Police Chief Patrick Walsh told the Public Safety Commission the Lompoc Police Department was “down seven police officers with four to five in current backgrounds with other departments.”

That means four or five more are seeking other employment.
 
His report continues: “... dispatchers have resigned and one jailer will be needed once he leaves for the police academy in January.

"Currently, the Police Department is not applying/recruiting for police officers since they have [a] list (of eligible people), but future applicants can fill out an interest card; however, the hiring process has changed.
 
“There is now a seven par (step) process that future applicants go through: written test, physical agility, background check, interview, psychological test, lie detector test, and a medical exam.”

This is typical and is designed to produce the most qualified applicant.
 
Staffing of the LPD should concern everyone. Officers are working excessive hours to staff empty positions. This overtime creates stresses for their families and fatigued officers could make mistakes in critical situations.

When situations occur requiring most or all the on-duty force, some calls go unanswered until reinforcements can arrive.
 
When mistakes occur, they happen in a split second. An officer could miss a key piece of information, be distracted during interviews or crash his/her patrol car while chasing people who are armed or have just shot into a crowd.

The other, less obvious, issue is the experience level of police department supervision.

With a highly transient workforce, and a crew that changes just about the time they become a synchronized team, the community suffers. There is no substitute for experience and wisdom while supervising police officers.

Officer fatigue, hiring of new officers and retention of competent officers should be of critical concern to the City Council, but council members had other priorities during their budget discussions.

When three council members voted to place public safety as the third priority, they sent a signal that other issues were more important.

Because officers are forced to work longer hours, their gross pay may appear excessive; but the fact is, they are spending more time on the job than they are at home. When all things are considered, they earn every penny.

That isn’t the only issue apparently. The other evening, officers at a suspected DUI traffic stop requested a “functioning test device” to establish whether the suspect was impaired by alcohol. None could be found.

This is a common tool and why one wasn’t available for use in the field demands an explanation.

Also from the staff report:

“Battalion Chief Mark Bray discussed the current hiring process within the Fire Department. Currently, they are down two positions with one retiring in the next month; additionally, there are two in backgrounds with other agencies right now.”

During the last five years, the Fire Department that has hired, and lost the equivalent of its total staffing authorization as firefighters leave for other venues.

During an era of standardized training, both police officers and firefighters can easily transfer to another city.

Providing an adequate level of response to both police and fire issues isn’t as subjective as it may appear.

Competently trained personnel with a prominent level of experience handling issues in the communities they serve are critical when the going gets tough.

The high turnover rate in both Police and Fire departments means the experience level isn’t as good as it could be. Thus, public safety response suffers.

A plan is needed to solve this problem; pay and benefits are always cited as the primary reason public-safety employees leave Lompoc. Class envy often precludes rational thought when considering how to solve this problem.

I've heard elected officials of the past and present express concern about what they consider excessive pay for both police and firefighters.

Retention studies completed by members of both departments may provide valuable insight. Although prepared by employee groups, they could be used by city management to begin the process of examining causes of the retention issue.

Public-safety careers are very competitive, and workers of all professions always will seek the best compensation package they can get for their craft. So, why should public-safety employees be any different?

The Lompoc City Council, specifically the three who voted to place public safety as their third priority, should put personal biases aside and consider the needs of the community above their own agendas.

A bold plan is urgently needed to resolve this issue. Unfortunately, we may have the wrong team in place this election cycle.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected].com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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