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A staffing 'crisis' has law enforcement triaging while grasping for answers

click to enlarge Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal (foreground) and Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn are both thinking outside the box as they try to hold the line on service levels with depleted staffing.

Photo by Mark McKenna

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal (foreground) and Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn are both thinking outside the box as they try to hold the line on service levels with depleted staffing.

In Eureka, officers are working an emergency schedule built on 12.5-hour shifts and mandatory overtime, as the police department's once touted Problem Oriented Policing and Community Safety Engagement teams operate with skeletal staffing.

In Arcata, two detectives have been pulled back to patrol and all calls for service that don't involve someone in danger have been deprioritized, while proactive policing measures — like traffic enforcement in front of local schools or a detail to address the problematic group of homeless people doing drugs and relieving themselves in public near the Arcata Community Center — have been shelved.

For the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, 12-hour schedules and mandatory overtime — with deputies working holidays and weekends and days off — have become the norm. Resident deputy posts sit vacant while regular rural patrols and around-the-clock coverage of outlying areas have been abandoned for the time being. Amid a pandemic, deputies are afraid to call in sick for fear of leaving their co-workers stretched even thinner while the county looks to renegotiate police services contracts with the cities of Blue Lake and Trinidad because it can't deliver the promised regular patrols. Some nights, just eight deputies are left to cover the county's almost 4,000 square miles of unincorporated territory.

"That's a lot of ground to cover," says Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal over the phone, frustration evident in his voice.

Humboldt County's largest law enforcement agencies are all struggling to recruit and retain officers, mirroring state and national trends that see higher rates of officers retiring or otherwise leaving the profession, with a shallowing pool of applicants signing up to replace them. The issue isn't new — we wrote about it in these pages in January of 2020 ("Recruitment and Retention") — but it seems to be getting worse, not better.

The reasons are myriad — what some describe as a "perfect storm" of challenges facing the profession — but the result is that agencies are vying for any and all recruitment and retention advantages. Officials are also increasingly looking for outside-the-box solutions to maximize officers' time and have non-sworn personnel respond to calls that don't necessarily demand the presence of a badge and a gun.

The Storm

College of the Redwoods' Police Academy once turned away scores of applicants, with its program capped at 40 students a semester. But, currently, it has just a dozen cadets enrolled. And that's not a problem unique to CR. Academies across the country are reporting fewer applicants.

Nationwide, a Police Executive Research Firm survey earlier this year found departments were seeing an overall decrease of 5 percent in their hiring rates in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, with smaller departments reporting an average vacancy rate of near 9 percent. Perhaps most alarming, the survey found resignations increased 18 percent, while retirements were up 45 percent.

Ask local law enforcement leaders why fewer people seem to be going into policing and you'll find there's not shortage of answers. First, it's a grueling job — one that generally necessitates nontraditional hours and witnessing high rates of trauma, all with the knowledge that returning home at the end of a shift isn't a given. But those factors aren't new and have always been inherent in policing.

But there's no denying the climate around policing has changed. What started as the so-called "Ferguson effect" in reference to the 2014 police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown, spawning protests across the nation, rose to unprecedented levels in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd's killing set off waves of protests across the nation and sparked intense dialogues about policing in America, with calls to "defund the police," renewed scrutiny of the impacts of racial bias and increased demands for accountability in the profession, including the criminal prosecutions of officers who use excessive or unwarranted force.

"There's an environment right now where they're looking to make examples of cops," EPD Chief Steve Watson says. "Throw this on top of what is already a really challenging job with often unrealistic expectations, and it's a lot."

APD Chief Brian Ahearn says he'd like to see an academic institution do some real research on the subject to find more definitive answers but agreed that technology and the push for police accountability have markedly changed the expectations of the job.

"The expectations now are almost unattainable in terms of having to be perfect every time and out on every call and in every situation," he says. "We recruit and retain from the human race and humans are imperfect."

And that extends way beyond critical incidents, Ahearn says, explaining that body-worn cameras have become the industry standard, meaning an officer's interactions will be dissected by their supervisors, juries and defense attorneys and the public, with near perfection as the standard. That feeling of always being under a microscope, coupled with the push for police accountability — from prosecutions to civil lawsuits — could cause someone looking to make a positive difference in their community to choose a different career path, Ahearn says.

"We have to be held to a higher standard — we have to," he says. "We need to be judged about the service we provide and the manner in which we provide it, and that needs to happen not only inside the organization but outside as well. But does that require some soul searching, much more than when I decided to enter the profession 35 years ago? It probably does because you're exposing yourself and your family to that degree of evaluation and scrutiny. It really can multiply the pressure and stress on officers and their families."

Ahearn pauses for moment before concluding: "I think some people are choosing other occupations when perhaps they would have chosen law enforcement before."

The nature of policing has also changed markedly in recent decades, as officers spend an increasing percentage of their time tasked with mitigating the quality of life impacts of homeless populations, those suffering from mental illness and grappling with addiction. Watson calls it the "tragic triad."

"The cops are there to fill the gaps in an under-resourced system," he says. "You call and they're going to respond. When I came into law enforcement, I had a picture in my head: I was going to be chasing bank robbers and arresting murderers and rapists. Well, the job today is so much more complex and wide, and we are being asked to do things that don't meet the traditional mold."

Ahearn points out that the burden of these societal problems also continues to fall disproportionately to officers even as courts and lawmakers have repeatedly weighed in to say they should not be law enforcement issues.

"Community police departments are left trying to strike an impossible balance," he says.

Over the past 18 months, officers have also been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, which officials say has added layers of stress, both from increased risk of exposure to just seeing more desperation in calls for service involving people increasingly living on the economic margins or with deteriorating mental health.

Watson says the local housing market — which has seen median home prices jump 20 percent over the past year to $405,000, according to Zillow — also poses challenges, saying he recently had an officer leave after they spent nine months looking to buy a house.

"It wasn't their first choice to move but they just didn't feel like they could find a house for their growing family here," he says.

Just Compensation

Back in 2014, when years of budget cuts had taken a toll on Humboldt County's coffers and the ranks of its sheriff's office, voters passed Measure Z, approving a half-cent sales tax hike that was projected to raise millions of dollars annually to fund public safety services. The county billed it as a means to "maintain/improve essential services, such as 24-hour sheriff's patrols, 911 emergency response, crime investigation ... ." But six years — and one extension approved by voters in 2018 — later, the measure is again becoming a talking point in county government.

Through a certain lens, Measure Z delivered on its promise, bringing in the revenue needed to fund dozens of deputy sheriff positions and fill those resident posts and staff those rural patrols. But the vast majority of those positions now sit vacant — funded but unfilled — as the same frustrations of slow response times and no police presence in outlying areas that led to Measure Z's passing grow anew.

In a Sept. 10 letter to the county's Measure Z committee and the Board of Supervisors, Humboldt County Deputy Sheriff's Association President Jamie Barney blasted the county for having "absolutely wasted $70 million on a wrong-headed and counterproductive 'hire rookies and hope for the best' strategy that is actually making public safety worse."

The association, which is in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the county, charges that the county's pay scale for deputies makes it hard to recruit and retain lateral hires. Meanwhile, the association argues that the county's efforts to bring on entry-level deputies have been slow and costly, wasting resources to train prospective deputies who fail to make it through the process, leading to staffing shortages that cause undesirable working conditions that push experienced deputies to look for often more lucrative positions elsewhere.

"Even some of our most dedicated HDSO members are actively applying for better paying jobs in other communities where their families can be protected with adequate public safety patrols," Barney wrote.

In a Sept. 24 email to the board of supervisors, Honsal backed the association, saying he's revamped the department's entire recruiting strategy to focus on lateral hires, even hiring a marketing firm to sell the department to potential candidates throughout the state and offering a $12,000 signing bonus to lateral hires.

In a phone call with the Journal, Honsal explains those are the tools he has in his tool box right now, saying it's the board of supervisors that sets salary schedules — not him. So while he can dip into his budget for signing bonuses, he can't raise salary schedules.

And Honsal says he absolutely sees compensation as a major factor in his department's staffing woes, pointing out that peace officer salaries have simply not kept pace with the changing realities of the job or the regional job market. The starting wage for a deputy in Humboldt County is about $48,000 a year, and Honsal points out plenty of other local employers offer wages competitive with that for jobs that come with a lot less stress and danger.

In a letter to the board of supervisors last month, lobbying for a pay increase for deputy sheriffs, Honsal wrote that he recently had eight deputies apply for a single security guard position with PG&E that paid about $10 more an hour than his deputies make.

Honsal says local departments often lose officers to the Redding Police Department, where the pay scale starts at $55,500, pointing out that Redding doesn't seem to have an issue retaining officers.

But one need only look around the county to see that there's more to the equation than pay scales. Arcata and Eureka both start officers at more than $55,000, and their staffing struggles remain, with EPD reporting that 25 percent of its officer positions sit vacant while APD has three of its 22 sworn positions unfilled with two more officers planning to leave the department.

Fortuna ($48,000), Rio Dell ($46,000) and Ferndale ($38,000) all pay significantly less, yet are at or near full staffing levels. (Read more about the Eel River Valley departments' staffing situations in this week's Enterprise.)

In Ferndale, Chief Ron Sligh, who stepped into the job in November after a career in Arcata, says he feels the culture of the Victorian Village community is supportive of law enforcement, which aids recruitment and retention efforts. And in addition to having a full roster of officers, Sigh says he has four reserve officers — "seasoned officers that still have a desire to serve" — ready to call in when there's a vacancy or a vacation.

"One thing that I have noticed, and one of the reasons I applied here, is that the city of Ferndale has a reputation of being very supportive of their police department and officers," he says. "The applicants that I have interviewed have all said this to me and with the current negative climate around law enforcement, the officers are looking for jobs where they feel appreciated and supported."

Fortuna Police Chief Casey Day agrees, saying he's focused much of his city's recent recruitment efforts on bringing in lateral transfers from other departments, who he says are drawn by Fortuna's culture and that of the department, which Day says has put a premium on officer wellness and work-life balance.

"I think regionally here in Humboldt, word gets out," he says. "You have some law enforcement officers working in different areas of the county where I'm just going to go out on a limb and say maybe there is not as much support for law enforcement as there is here in Fortuna. Officers feel like they want to work in a jurisdiction where they're going to get a little bit more community backing."

Looking for Answers

What's clear in talking to law enforcement executives throughout the region is that none expect the landscape to seismically shift any time soon, and none predict a record class of recruits will flood CR's academy in the coming months. And that means officers will continue to be in incredibly high demand, regionally and statewide, making hiring and retaining a competitive endeavor.

Local departments are — and have been — retooling accordingly. As Honsal lobbies for pay raises for his deputies, Arcata and Eureka both also recently approved pay hikes. And in addition to compensation, departments are looking at other ways to support their officers and create a climate recruits want to be a part of.

"A lot of millennials are motivated by more than just money — it has to do with quality of life and job satisfaction," Watson says, adding that EPD has revamped its recruiting pitches to showcase the sense of service inherent in the job, as well as opportunities for specialized training and assignments, as well as career advancement.

In Fortuna, Day has implemented twice annual all-staff meetings for which he has an outside agency come police the city so his entire staff can gather and talk, with a focus on family, work-life balance and holistic support, while also implementing programs to tighten the bonds between officers and the community. In Arcata, Ahearn says he's hopeful a culture of support — one that says "you don't have to be perfect just follow the law and department policy and act in good faith in everything you do" — coupled with progressive, forward looking citywide conversations about the future of policing will help bring on good people looking to make a difference.

Departments are also increasingly looking for efficiencies to make sure they're maximizing the impact of their limited ranks of sworn officers.

The county and Arcata have both implemented online reporting systems for low-level property crimes, in which there isn't evidence or a suspect, in an effort to minimize the time officers spend taking those reports.

Honsal says he's exploring the possibility of hiring legal office assistants to help deputies with report writing and exploring whether purchasing a dictation system might increase efficiency. He says he's also looking to expand the ranks of community service officers to handle calls like burglaries, vandalism, abandoned vehicles and cold case follow-ups, the kind of stuff that "doesn't take a badge and a gun, just a smart person to go out and get information."

Ahearn, Watson and Honsal also say they are working with city, county and state officials to find ways to get more mental health clinicians and social workers to respond to certain quality-of-life calls involving people in emotional distress or the chronically homeless.

"I feel like county mental health and state mental health have to step up to this. The sheriff's office and law enforcement in general, we can't be the answer to all of society's issues," Honsal says, relating the story of a deputy who was recently dispatched to a call from a parent whose 12-year-old kid had locked themselves in their room, refusing to go to school. "We get that call and we have to respond."

If there was another system in place to respond to those types of calls, Honsal says he and the deputy sheriff's association would happily sacrifice some positions to help fund it.

"By all means, take the money," Honsal says.

But the reality is those systems aren't currently in place and, as Watson says, "You're going to have a hard time getting a social worker to come out at 2 a.m."

For his part, Ahearn says that while the challenges are daunting, it's an incredibly exciting time to be in police leadership, on the front lines as departments try to adapt simultaneously to staffing challenges and changing societal expectations. That might mean bringing on more non-sworn specialists to address certain community issues, or taking some traditional police department functions — like school resource officers and crime prevention programs — and putting them under civilian management.

"We're going to have to evolve," he says. "Fifty years from now, policing will look so much different than it does now. ... In the here and now, I do think we're in the midst of a change. The staffing challenge is serving as one of many catalysts that are going to effect change."

Like nearly all the law enforcement executives the Journal spoke to for this story, Ahearn ends the interview with a recruiting pitch: "We're hiring and we're looking for good people to join our organization. Give us a chance. Come take a look at the Arcata PD and the other fine law enforcement agencies throughout the county. We need good people, diverse community members, BIPOC community members. We need good people from all walks to life to not only come in as entry-level staff but to take on promotions and leadership positions and move our organization on into the future."

He offers his cell phone number: (707) 601-6943.

"Call me," he says. "We'll have coffee."


Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct an error regarding which local agencies have started online reporting systems for nonviolent crimes. The Journal regrets the error.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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