Two officers celebrated a homecoming at the Sacramento Police Department last month, returning to the agency after a stint with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who attended the event, said their return spoke “in the most positive way about the future of this department and the future of our city.”
The officers’ badge pinning ceremony was a change from an exodus of rank-and-file officers within the police department, brought on by lower salaries than other, more suburban, agencies in the region, low morale and frayed public trust following a series of high-profile police shootings last year.
That exodus has left the department with about 100 vacancies among sworn officers despite increased efforts to recruit new police and attract experienced cops, said department spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein.
“I think that there’s a lot of things that we want to do here as an organization, but we’re strapped thin as a department,” he said.
Nationally, the Sacramento Police Department has the lowest number of sworn officers per capita among police departments protecting cities with similar populations, a Sacramento Bee review of 2016 FBI data shows.
A total of 652 sworn officers were tasked to protect California’s capital city in 2016, overseeing public safety for the 495,471 people who live in Sacramento. Those numbers place Sacramento at 1.32 officers per 1,000 residents, the lowest per capita rate among the 16 cities in the FBI database with populations between 400,000 and 600,000.
Fresno, Long Beach and Oakland all have higher rates. Raleigh, N.C., and Tulsa, OK, have more cops, and Sacramento’s police force is less than half the size of Kansas City’s.
The FBI data was gathered from 13,217 law enforcement agencies across the country at the end of October 2016 for its annual Uniform Crime Reporting program, the federal agency said. Nationwide, the rate of sworn officers was 2.4 per 1,000 people in 2016.
For the Sacramento Police Department, the number of sworn officers remained steady through September of this year, Heinlein said, with 650 sworn officers accounted at the end of the month. The city’s budget allots funding for 753 sworn positions.
“It’s a challenge when you don’t have enough staffing,” said Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn. “The concern would be, as an ongoing issue, you’re constantly pulling from other primary functions.”
Steinberg, who helped negotiate a new contract with the city police union, is counting on that agreement and Hahn’s appointment over the summer “to significantly increase police staffing levels.”
“We want to go out and do community-based policing and in order to do that, we need more officers,” the mayor said.
The new two-year contract, approved by city officials and the police union last month, gives officers the first significant pay raise in years. It includes incremental raises for all officers and additional salary increases for cops that have worked in the department for more than 4 1/2 years. It also offers cash incentives for officers to buy a home within the city limits.
The high number of vacancies in the department has led police officers to triage calls, prioritizing the most extreme or violent crimes, said Tim Davis, the president of the police union. Without enough officers, the practice means some minor crimes go unnoticed. Understaffed shifts also mean response times are slowed, he said.
Edward Medrano, the police chief of Gardena in Los Angeles County and the board president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said police agencies around the nation are struggling to recruit quality applicants, given that “the police narrative has not been great in the last five to seven years.” Without adequate staffing levels, he said departments are unable to dedicate resources to many aspects of policing, from community engagement to investigations.
“If you can only do the bare essential police functions because of staffing levels, it limits your ability to be innovative,” he said.
Both Davis and Heinlein said staffing has been a problem for the Sacramento Police Department for several years. Much of the damage was done following the recession, when city officials, facing tightening budgets, approved cuts to the city’s law enforcement, they said. That included laying off 80 police officers in an attempt to address a $39 million deficit in 2011. The cuts also meant the department had to shed units responsible for investigating drugs and automobile crashes.
“During that time, we actually took people that we trained, that were part of the family, and we told them that we couldn’t afford to keep them,” Davis said. “We were so low on people, we stopped going to burglary reports.”
Most cities Sacramento’s size have not refilled their police ranks to pre-recession levels. Sacramento hit a peak of 804 uniformed officers in 2007, then saw its force steadily depleted.
Last year, the Sacramento Police Department faced different hurdles: low morale among rank-and-file officers and cops who were leaving for local agencies that paid more to patrol suburban neighborhoods.
In 2015, Sacramento paid their city’s officers less than almost all the large suburban cities in the region, a Sacramento Bee analysis of government employee salaries shows. The new contract was a gesture of good faith by city leaders to local police after a difficult period for the department, Davis said.
A number of high-profile police shootings last year created tensions between some residents and local police. Community groups who advocated for increased transparency and policy changes within the department showed up to City Council meetings in the months that followed.
At around the same time, former Chief Sam Somers Jr. announced his retirement, leaving the future direction of the department uncertain as city management looked for a new chief.
Cops wanted a leader who would work with the community but would also advocate on behalf of the department when needed, Davis said. Hahn, who was sworn in as chief in August, can do both, Davis said.
Retaining current officers and filling vacant positions is a top priority, Hahn said. Increasing the number of sworn officers for the city to 800 will not be enough given how much Sacramento is growing, he said, but he understands that city leaders have other priorities that need resources, such as tackling homelessness.
“We need to be able to say, ‘We need more officers for this specific reason, we need more officers for that,’” he said. “I definitely don’t think that we should add officers and everything else be damned.”
Right now, one of the most pressing tasks for the Sacramento Police Department is filling its scores of vacant officer positions. To that end, it hosts events like Run with a Recruiter, holds hiring workshops and sends recruiters to college campuses. There are 30 trainees in the department’s police academy, which runs twice a year, Heinlein said. It will take 18 months for the group to be ready to patrol city streets on their own, assuming that they pass the academy, he said. Most new hires enter the police department through the academy, he said.
“It’s a big investment for the city and the police department to put these people through the extensive training,” he said. “We want to retain these employees.”
The department also has job postings for experienced officers on the city website. Salaries for those officers range from about $66,900 to $89,700.
Hahn plans to continue strengthening ties between local police and community members to improve working conditions for the department’s officers, he said. Police who feel like they are making a difference in their communities are the ones who want to stay, according to Hahn.
“A great relationship with the community, that’s an indicator that it’s a great place to work,” Hahn said. “If you have that, I think everything else will work itself out.”