Law enforcement agencies in Southern California continue to face significant staffing shortages three years after a nationwide reckoning on policing triggered a wave of retirements and resignations among officers.
According to many law enforcement officials across the Southland, agencies are grappling with depleted numbers, forced overtime, burnout, increased absences and safety concerns for existing sworn officers.
While there is a pressing need for new officers, agencies are struggling to retain their current personnel and attract new recruits due to demands for racial justice and police accountability in the wake of high-profile incidents such as the killing of George Floyd.
The shortages of personnel have particularly affected the largest law enforcement agencies in the region. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the world’s largest sheriff’s force, has more than 2,000 unfilled deputy positions out of a budgeted force of 10,400 sworn officers, creating a shortfall of nearly 20%.
In addition, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the nation’s third-largest municipal law enforcement agency, aims to hire an additional 740 officers to offset the 922 retirements and 383 resignations it experienced in 2021 and 2022.
Midsize and smaller police departments in cities like Torrance, Riverside, Huntington Beach and Pomona have also been grappling with significant staffing shortages, while competing to hire experienced officers through lateral transfers, or recruit new candidates who will require police academy training.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), described the staffing crisis as unprecedented, saying, “Hiring has picked up. Unfortunately, it is not keeping pace with those resigning or retiring.”
According to a PERF survey, law enforcement agencies reported hiring more sworn officers in 2022 compared to the previous three years. However, the rate of resignations in 2022 was 50% higher than in 2019, and retirements increased by 20% during the same period, resulting in an overall decrease in sworn staffing by nearly 5% in the past three years.
The staffing shortages are also taking its toll on the well-being of officers.
According to the LASD, deputies are working up to 120 hours of overtime per month, which has led to emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, as well as an increased risk of on-duty injuries.
“Unfortunately, over the past year, our department has lost hundreds of deputies to resignations, often to other law enforcement agencies,” the department stated. “A vast majority of the resignations are deputies that have less than five years on the department. The quality of our training makes them an enticing candidate to recruit for other agencies.”
The LAPD is also experiencing staffing shortfalls, but it has not yet reached critical levels that impact routine patrols or response times. However, officers occasionally need to work overtime to cover vacancies. Recognizing the risk of burnout, LAPD supervisors are now trained to identify signs of exhaustion among their personnel.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP), the largest statewide law enforcement agency in the nation, is looking to fill 975 vacant positions, with 120 of them in the Southern Division. To attract new recruits, the CHP launched the “Join the CHP 1,000” campaign.
Municipal police agencies in cities like Riverside, Long Beach, Torrance, Santa Ana and Huntington Beach are also experiencing staffing shortfalls that affect public safety and are requiring officers to work overtime.
Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback believes that the anti-police sentiment across the country has contributed to the problem. “We are currently at par nationwide with vacancies seen due to retirements, resignations and normal attrition,” he said. “But we have also experienced the same anti-law-enforcement sentiment and legislation as seen up and down California, and nationwide for that matter, that has made recruitment and retention efforts more difficult than we have ever had to endure.”
In Long Beach, Chief Wally Hebeish has mandated one overtime patrol shift per month for officers due to staffing levels being down 12%. Many have claimed that this is leading to burnout among the force.
The El Monte Police Department is also requiring its officers to work overtime shifts.
“We have to force our officers to work quite a bit of overtime. It does negatively impact officer wellness and safety,” Chief Jake Fisher said.
While Southern California law enforcement agencies acknowledge the challenges in recruitment and retention due to anti-police sentiment, lateral transfers and legislation, some departments are faring better than others.
For example, the San Bernardino Police Department has seen an increase in staffing levels, but it still faces an ongoing struggle due to attrition rates.
Meanwhile, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Department have managed to weather the storm on sworn staffing to a certain extent, although they still face challenges in fully staffing their facilities.