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Recruitment and Retention 

Big raises in Mendocino could complicate local law enforcement agencies' staffing struggles

click to enlarge Sheriff William Honsal has 17 empty deputy positions.

Alexandra Hootnick

Sheriff William Honsal has 17 empty deputy positions.

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal says he became more concerned about his office's already pressed recruitment and retention efforts when he heard that Mendocino County supervisors were giving their deputies a significant raise.

Not that he begrudged the nearly 30-percent increase Mendocino's deputies will be receiving over three years under a new contract approved in October. Honsal says he knows his counterparts to the south took a 10-percent pay cut in the throes of the recession and haven't had a significant raise in the decade or so since.

But the hike makes Mendocino more competitive in the already tight race for a dwindling pool of qualified candidates whom North Coast law enforcement agencies struggle to not only bring on board but keep — a trend mirrored across the country.

For comparison, — according to job postings — an entry-level deputy position in the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office starts around $46,000 to $51,000 while a new Eureka police officer can expect to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000 to $66,000. With Mendocino County's raise, a new deputy's salary currently lands in the $52,000 to $63,000 range.

That doesn't include benefits and certain incentives. For example, deputies in Humboldt County receive a $3,000 hiring bonus and another $3,000 after completing the probation period, while EPD offers a $5,000 signing bonus.

Over the last decade, applications for jobs in the field have plummeted nationwide, regardless of a department's size or location. Some attribute this in part to what has been described as an offshoot of the so-called "Ferguson effect," a reference to the 2014 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white officer in the Missouri city. Such incidents have led to increasingly polarized views about policing — which Honsal and others see as a contributing factor to why fewer people are looking to enter law enforcement.

There are also the long hours and missed holidays while working an intense job that on any given day could mean responding to a horrific incident or putting your life on the line.

Combined with high turnover rates, continuous retirements and a lengthy hiring process that can take nearly a year to put boots on patrol, Honsal says the raises in Mendocino are now just one more hurdle to clear as he tries to fill 17 empty positions out of his 85 deputy posts.

The sheriff went public with the situation earlier this month, saying in a statement that the county of Humboldt needs to take similar measures, while noting he has been talking with supervisors about ways to equitably compensate his office's employees — from dispatchers to patrol deputies and up the line — for the level of responsibility their positions demand.

"It concerns me," Honsal says of Mendocino's more competative seat at the recruitment table. "We were already in a situation in Northern California where we were competing for a pool that was a tenth of the size that it was 10 years ago."

Back then, Honsal says, his office might receive 100 applications for one position. Now, he says, it's basically the opposite.

"It is a struggle," the sheriff says.

Right now, his deputies are pulling emergency 12-hour shifts and working on their days off in order to keep up with patrols. But that's not sustainable, Honsal says.

"It does take a toll," he says. "We ask a lot of our deputy sheriffs. It is a very unique position and the community doesn't always know all the things they are doing on a daily basis to keep us all safe."

Another bitter pill to swallow is having to return around $500,000 in funds slated for five positions — including resident deputies who live in the county's far-flung communities like Shelter Cove, where without those posts response times can be measured in hours rather than minutes.

Honsal says he knows public safety and resident deputies, in particular, were major selling points for the half-cent sales tax measure approved by county voters in 2014 (as Measure Z) and a second time in 2018 (as Measure O). But he has no one to send at this point, so the money is going back into the pot for other uses.

"It's frustrating for me," Honsal says, noting how difficult it is to tell residents in those areas his office is not able to fill the positions. "It's stuff that I think about every week."

Others in a similar position can relate. Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson recently weathered a "crisis stage" shortage of dispatchers to handle emergency calls for the city.

The precipitous drop in qualified candidates is reflected nationwide, he says, with "a lot of recent attention given to this issue over the years."

"When you live in isolated, rural communities like Humboldt, these issues can become particularly acute," Watson says.

He knows the scenario Honsal is facing because he's been there — as has just about everyone else overseeing a local law enforcement agency in the last five to 10 years.

There's the never-ending effort to recruit, the long hiring process that stretches months on end and, then, the frustration of getting officers in and trained only to watch them leave the profession or find a job closer to their hometown after a few years.

"It's been a real battle and challenge, and it's taken a tremendous amount of time and staff time, but we're in a good place now ... but it's a tenuous hold," Watson says.

The chief points to a recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum, which surveyed more than 400 agencies ranging in size from five employees to more than 250. It found that 63 percent reported the number of applicants had decreased over the last five years, with 36 percent describing the decline as "significant."

The nonprofit's synopsis of the survey notes the law enforcement field is facing a "triple threat" in the form of "fewer applicants, more resignations and a looming retirement bubble."

To contend with the trend, the report recommends emphasizing service over excitement (for example, don't show a SWAT team arrest in a recruitment video), offering training and opportunities for different specialties, building trust in the local community and finding ways to offer a better work-life balance.

So, while the North Coast is hardly alone in the staffing predicament, Watson says he sees taking an "outside-the-box" approach as key to addressing the issue of today's reality, pointing to some recent ways EPD looked to solve staffing issues.

One of those steps — born in collaboration with former City Manager Greg Sparks and the city's human resources department — was to freeze four positions last year to provide a 5-percent base salary bump for EPD officers and dispatchers. It was a move rooted in the department's pattern of having an average of five vacancies at any given time.

Another was to create a "trainee class" for dispatchers, which allowed Watson to fill positions on the front end while giving the hires six months to pass a rigorous test for the frontline emergency posts.

That, he says, has allowed EPD to go from the "crisis stage" of being down nearly half of the 11 dispatch positions to having 10 filled, two by trainees.

Regardless, there always needs to be a "deliberate, purposeful effort to stay on top," Watson says, noting he could lose someone at any time to retirement or a resignation.

He says he also believes "the negative national narrative" on policing has had an impact on the number of qualified candidates who apply, saying incidents like Ferguson have put a focus on "lawful but awful cases where maybe the use of force is significant or maybe someone loses their life, or those cases where the officer got it wrong or any time there is a misstep."

From Watson's perspective, the national media has not "balanced it fairly," contributing to the profession's not being "viewed with quite the level of respect that it once had."

That, he says, has also added to issues with "employee wellness," noting that suicide rates among officers is a "very real problem only made worse by the negativity out there."

Law enforcement officers have long been considered at greater risk for suicide for several reasons, including the intensity of their work, a culture that too often views showing emotion as a weakness and ready access to firearms.

Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts' nonprofit, says 228 law enforcement officers — including those who have retired — committed suicide in 2019, the highest number since 2016 when the organization began recording the deaths.

In comparison, the Officer Down Memorial page reports 135 lost their lives in the line of duty last year, including accidents such as car crashes.

Compounding that is the changing nature of police work, with officers dealing more and more with societal issues such as homelessness and addiction, while also facing new laws that can impact their ability to respond, Watson notes.

That said, the Eureka police chief says he's fortunate to live in such a supportive community and that engaging residents and continuing to build those relationships is an important part of his department's job.

"We need good people and I wouldn't shy away (from policing) if they feel a calling to help others," Watson says. "It's a very meaningful profession. There is not a day that I don't have a sense of purpose and meaning."

While saying raises like the ones in Mendocino and those Honsal is seeking here in Humboldt can have a "ripple effect across agencies ... so there is this constant stair stepping," Watson also notes that pay isn't everything.

"We're trying to build a sense of family here, where people want to stay and that's very important," he says, adding that compromise is not an option.

"Recruiting the ideal candidate is not always possible but you also don't want to lower your standards because your community deserves the very best," Watson says.

Down south, Mendocino Sheriff's Office Capt. Gregory Van Patten is hopeful the recent raise will make a difference. He says his office faces the same "constant battle" to recruit and retain, with many of its new hires coming out of the Bay Area region then returning back home after getting a few years of experience under their belts.

The increase, he says, does come after a deep pay cut years back, which was followed by no significant increases. But he says it was mainly the product of a comparison study commissioned by the county to see how Mendocino's salaries stacked up to those in other labor markets.

"I think that kind of put the county on notice," Van Patten says.

Supervisors down there came through with pay increases that will put not just sheriff's office employees but other county workers within 90 percent of the comparative compensation rates over the next three years.

But that does come with a price tag.

Just for the current fiscal year, according to discussion at the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors' meeting when the contract was approved, the across-the-board raises will add $5 million to the county's annual budget.

Van Patten agrees the North Coast recruiting pool is "really small" and has only contracted over the years, putting Mendocino in the position of basically becoming a "training ground," with many recruits coming from nearby counties and leaving after three to five years.

"I think we'll still see some attrition over the next year ... but hopefully some of those who come from Sonoma County might stay because of the pay. I think this will help with our retention."

Like Watson mentioned, Van Patten says there is also an emphasis on creating a "positive work environment." He notes that those who join smaller outfits like Humboldt, Mendocino or EPD are able to gain more real world experience — like crime scene investigation or witness interviews — which can help "accelerate their career."

At a larger department, those tasks are more often "compartmentalized," he says, with special teams called in to take over from the first responders at the scene.

Ultimately, finding someone who grew up in the area is ideal, not just because they are more likely to stay but also because there's more of an "ownership" in the community, Van Patten says, noting he is "homegrown" and has been with the department full-time for 22 years.

Van Patten says he doesn't imagine encouraging his two children to follow the same path after seeing all the changes that have occurred, including the perception of law enforcement.

Van Patten says law enforcement officers were "seen as credible" at trials based on the position they held when he first started, but over the years that has evolved to needing to have audio to back up their testimony and then body camera footage, which is still contested.

"It's hard to stomach that," he says, "but unfortunately we've had a couple bad apples that have tainted us."

There's also the basic nature of the job, which can mean facing the worst of society on a far more constant basis than most people.

"It's challenging, the work we do and what we see. ... It definitely has an effect on you over the years," he says.

Still, at the end of the day, Van Patten says he "doesn't see himself doing anything else."

Meanwhile, Honsal is continuing to work to fill those 17 deputy slots but it's a steep hill to climb. Even a candidate hired today would not be "out and fruitful" on patrol until May of next year, between undergoing the rigorous background check process, attending the police academy and finishing required on-the-job training before setting out on their own, he says.

That's one of the reasons the county is offering a $12,000 signing bonus for someone making a lateral jump from another agency, which would cut down the time from hire to patrol to just six weeks.

But, like Watson, Honsal says his office is not willing to lower its standards.

"We hold them very much to account to everything they do," Honsal says of the sheriff's deputies. "The job is very public and it is very important that they do the right thing every moment of the day, including off duty. ... It's a tough job."

The responsibility deputies and dispatchers carry on their shoulders is a massive one, he says, arguing that they deserve to be compensated for the immensity of what they are tasked with each day on the job.

That is something Honsal says he has continuously communicated to supervisors, saying they have been "very attentive to this," including authorizing a raise for emergency dispatchers in June.

"It's something that is on their minds and they've been supportive," Honsal says of the board.

Supervisors have approved conducting "a compensation and classification study" for the entire county, similar to the one done in Mendocino, that will "analyze how county employees are classified and compensated compared to their duties and similar positions at comparable agencies," according to county spokesperson Sean Quincey.

"The county realizes how important it is to hire and retain qualified public safety employees and has consistently supported law enforcement in these efforts," he wrote in an email to the Journal.

But Humboldt's budget is not robust. According to a seven-year forecast from February of 2019, General Fund expenses were expected to outpace revenue each of those years and be $20.5 million in the negative by the end of fiscal year 2023..

Honsal hopes the tide is turning. He says he's thankful for the community response since coming forward and believes his office has worked hard to "build up a trust in our community."

Since the announcement went out, the sheriff's office has received at least 25 job inquires.

"By this time next year, we'll have all the positions filled and then be on a good course to get to full staff," Honsal says.

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor at the Journal. She prefers she/her pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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About The Author

Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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