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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 5:07 pm | Partly Cloudy 56º


Santa Barbara Police Still Struggling To Hire Officers For 19 Vacant Positions

Retirements, lateral moves to sheriff and UCSB police departments plague department and City Council questions recruitment efforts

The Santa Barbara Police Department recently held a swearing-in ceremony for new officers but is struggling to hire enough people to fill its vacant positions.
The Santa Barbara Police Department recently held a swearing-in ceremony for new officers but is struggling to hire enough people to fill its vacant positions.  (Martin Alexander / Santa Barbara Police Department photo)

Santa Barbara police are trying to recruit more officers to get back to full enforcement levels, but city officials weren’t sure this week if the department is trying hard enough.

The money is available, which made Councilman Gregg Hart all the more skeptical of why Police Chief Cam Sanchez hadn’t come up with a better plan to fill open slots.

Hart grilled the police chief during Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting after learning the department is trying to hire 19 new officers because some are retiring or leaving for jobs elsewhere.

In the last year, eight officers made lateral moves to other agencies, Capt. Gil Torres said during a police department presentation at council.

Seven officers retired in the past nine months and eight more were expected to in the next six months, Torres said, noting it was higher than usual.

The salt in the wound came when Torres mentioned the common practice of Santa Barbara police officers retiring at age 50 to 55 — with full pensions — and moving over to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department or UC Police Department, where they continue taking a salary but not retirement.

“The number we’re trying to hire is unprecedented to us,” Torres said.

Typically, the department hires no more than seven officers a year, he said.

Hart wondered aloud whether the exodus was caused by poor morale, possibly stemming from officers upset with management, Sanchez in particular.

“What’s the plan given this reality?” Hart asked.

The police chief, who returned to work this week after taking a week off to recover from a concussion and minor injuries suffered in an Oct. 2 traffic accident, conceded that employees would never be happy with every decision he made.

With fewer total officers — department staffing is at 93 percent even though seven officers were just hired — those in specialized jobs like detectives or special operations are moved back into patrol, where strength is at 46 instead of the usual 57 at any given time.

Those left are busier, call response times are slightly slower (except for No.1 priority violent crimes) and not everyone is happy about that, Sanchez said.

Calls are also up in general by about 8 percent, probably because the department is asking residents to summon its Community Service Officers to deal with disturbances involving the homeless.

The major recruitment issue, Sanchez said, was recruits failing background checks. A typical background check involves a polygraph test and physical and psychological tests.

Sanchez didn’t go into disqualifiers, but Sgt. Riley Harwood said Wednesday that most recruits get booted for being dishonest about their personal history.

Before they go into the academy, candidates fill out a 30-page questionnaire about themselves, which is researched by investigators as the basis of a polygraph.

Recruits either embellish accomplishments or downplay certain issues like past drug use or credit history, which don’t automatically disqualify people but, at a certain point, negate integrity, Harwood said.

He said the average background investigation costs the department $2,500 over a week of work.

Harwood echoed the chief’s concerns about comprising standards for candidates who lie and might one day make the department liable.

Torres said a majority of applicants also aren’t academically qualified, besides the fact that many get scared away by Santa Barbara’s high cost of living.

Sanchez said the department plans to look more at the lateral issue, along with promoting a new recruitment video, online advertising, an in-house promotion for city employees and a yet-to-be determined signing bonus. 

“We’re on it,” Sanchez said. “I’m the chief, and this is on me.”

About the only good news was crime in general still being down, but that didn’t change the meeting’s tone.

“I do not believe morale is low,” Sanchez said, citing morale as a choice and the profession as one of honor. “Officers continue to do great work. I really love my people. I am not a perfect chief.”

Hart said he didn’t hear a sense of urgency, but Sanchez promised to bring back a recruitment plan with specific goals as soon as possible.

“We’re accountable to the public, and you’re accountable to the public,” Hart said. “We can’t just say we’re going to keep trying. We have to do a better job recruiting.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff 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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