The San Diego Police Department is suffering from a rash of vacancies in civilian jobs that's reducing parking citation revenue and swelling overtime costs by forcing higher-paid uniformed officers to perform lower-level administrative work.
A recent increase in police officer vacancies has gotten significant attention — there are now more than 200 — but the labor union representing civilian police workers says that problem is being compounded by similar problems among civilian staff.
The department has 32 dispatcher vacancies, 31 unfilled parking-enforcement officer jobs and 113 vacancies in investigative aide and resource officer jobs, according to the union, the Municipal Employees Association.
The union says it's particularly concerning that the numbers of dispatcher, investigative aide and resource officer vacancies have more than doubled since 2019, while the number of uniformed officer vacancies is up only 13 percent since then.
"We've got some longer-term trends here that are clearly causing higher-paid, essentially overqualified sworn officers to do work that was being done, could be done and should be done in the future by civilian positions," said Mike Zucchet, the union's general manager. "You've got officers now doing the work that those civilians were doing, which contributes to overtime."
The problem is even more striking in the number of needed parking enforcement officers, where plans last spring to hire 20 more workers never materialized and vacancies have actually risen since then from five to 11, Zucchet said.
"You're missing out on what each parking enforcement officer generates in revenue for the city — $350,000 a year," said Zucchet, noting that citation revenue is down $2.3 million this fiscal year. "Because those jobs are not filled, it's causing a hole in your budget."
Police Chief David Nisleit acknowledged the problem during a City Council budget hearing Monday and said he would prefer to have civilians doing many tasks that officers now must perform because of vacancies.
Those tasks include handling misdemeanor arrests, processing public records requests and redacting names from documents released by the department.
"We're looking at 'civilianization,'" he said. "We're looking at trying to be more effective and more efficient on who does the work — but until those positions can be filled, the work still has to be completed."
Nisleit said it's disappointing the city hasn't refilled many civilian police jobs that were cut in 2008, 2009 and 2010 after a severe recession sharply reduced city tax revenue. Those investigative aides and resource officers handle lower-level cases such as property crimes, cold cases, vandalism and non-injury crashes.
"Every single person we could get would in turn put an officer back out into the field," he said.
Using higher-paid uniformed officers to accomplish these tasks has swelled the police department's overtime budget in the ongoing fiscal year.
The department had already spent $21.3 million of its $40.2 million overtime budget through November, the fifth month of the 12 in the fiscal year. City officials now project overtime spending to be $9.2 million over budget.
Nisleit said some of the overtime can be attributed to a greater focus on violent crime and the vacancies among officers, which requires a smaller uniformed staff to cover more shifts.
He said a major challenge in solving the civilian vacancy problem is San Diego's relatively low pay compared to other cities and law enforcement agencies.
"A lot of the positions, we're just not competitive in the marketplace," he said.
A salary survey that city officials conducted in January found that civilian police employees in San Diego make far less than their counterparts in 19 comparable cities and government agencies.
Based on median salaries, dispatchers earn 10.6 percent less, parking enforcement officers earn 9.9 percent less, police resource officers earn 16.9 percent less and police dispatchers earn 31.5 percent less.
Zucchet said city officials must significantly boost compensation for civilian police workers and then prioritize filling the vacant jobs.
City Council members mostly agreed.
"We need the pay and benefit packages for these positions to be much more than they currently are," Councilmember Vivian Moreno said. "The sooner we take these steps, the faster we can solve the overtime problem."
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