By Jessica Brodkin Webb
Following a Jan. 25 County Board of Supervisors’ vote, the county’s Chief Administrative Officer and staff have until July 24 to produce recruitment, planning and funding recommendations that would support increased Sheriff’s department staffing.
The CAO will simultaneously be tasked with addressing restorative justice practices in a holistic approach to improved law enforcement efforts across the county.
That vote and accompanying discussion stemmed from a letter District 2 Supervisor Joel Anderson and District 5 Supervisor Jim Desmond brought to the board, ostensibly to address an apparent shortage in staffing at the Sheriff’s department, the primary law enforcement agency throughout unincorporated San Diego county.
The letter Anderson and Desmond crafted said “Housing shortages and high housing costs have contributed to these personnel shortages as many law enforcement professionals are unable to live where they work,” and suggested that COVID-19 vaccine mandates might be contributing to staff resignations.
In addition to a staffing shortage that might be affecting residents who rely on the Sheriff for law enforcement, the letter also said staffing limitations could potentially affect all of San Diego county as the Sheriff’s department serves as the region’s Mutual Aid Coordinator when other law enforcement agencies request help with services like crime lab support, aerial support to regional law enforcement agencies, special enforcement detail, bomb or arson investigations and other missions.
“We need to make sure no harm comes to any of our constituents that can be avoided. Instead of waiting until things get worse or an emergency occurs, I want to get ahead of the shortage,” Anderson, who oversees rural East County, said.
San Diego County Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Holly Porter, who serves as General Manager of the county’s public safety group said the county received 40% fewer Sheriff’s applications in 2021 than in 2016 and 36% less than in 2017. She also said it takes many months for successful applications to go through training.
However, District 1 Supervisor Nora Vargas, who oversees South San Diego county, said she would like staff to address public defenders, youth outreach services and other groups that work alongside law enforcement agencies included in a “holistic” approach to funding and staffing as those outlets potentially reduce crime.
District 3 Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who has constituents in both San Diego county and the city of San Diego said addressing crime means staffing public defenders and probation officers, a way to “keep from starting the fires” so less funding is needed to extinguish subsequent flames of crime.
“We’re not looking at the root of the problem, which is addressing crime. Staffing the Sheriff’s department is not addressing crime,” Vargas said.
The Sheriff, Vargas said, has been under recent scrutiny, “and rightfully so” for how they have handled persons in custody, and said the entire system needs an adjustment, including how programs such as drug abuse prevention, reentry after imprisonment and other restorative justice approaches are utilized.
Anderson said law enforcement agencies and other departments that work alongside law enforcement agencies are equally important but “there’s a distinction between ‘mutual aid’ and ‘not mutual aid’.”
Vargas maintained they are part of the same system and should be addressed as such.
The county’s Public Safety group includes the Sheriff’s department, District Attorney’s office, the probation department, office of emergency services, the citizen’s law enforcement review board, the public defender, child support and medical examiner. According to the county, those departments have over 7,000 employees and an annual budget of over $1.2 billion.
Anderson maintained his concern is unincorporated county residents who need to feel safe and that he would like to focus on staffing the county Sheriff’s department.
However, he said he would be “more than willing to accept amendments” to the letter he and Desmond drafted and ask county staff to include non-mutual aid agencies in proposed solutions if they can return within 180 days and address both mutual aid and non-mutual aid agencies with holistic solutions.
“We can come back at the same time with that. We can work with Human Resources to address actions we can take that will improve those situations,” Porter said.
Desmond asked whether addressing the wider scope of needs would delay potential solutions specific to staffing the Sheriff’s department.
“Let me reassure you, we will accommodate the schedule. We will not delay,” Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer said.
Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to have county staff return to the board in 180 days or as soon as possible with updates and recommendations related to recruitment, planning, and funding strategies that support the Sheriff’s Department as well as restorative justice measures for a holistic approach to crime prevention.