Mass Exodus of Officers Hits Stockton Police Department Hard

The Record reported on August 22nd that Stockton is losing experienced police officers in “startling numbers” since the city declared bankruptcy.  Unfortunately, San Bernardino is also steadily losing a great deal of experienced law enforcement professionals as a result of the city filing bankruptcy.

Here’s Scott Smith’s aritcle, “Exodus Hits PD Hard:”

At a time when they’re needed most, Stockton’s police officers are leaving in startling numbers, exiting for jobs with other agencies such as BART, the city of Oceanside and Placer County.

Stockton City Manager Bob Deis said Tuesday he has appealed to Gov. Jerry Brown and California’s top legislators for their help keeping the city from slipping into “municipal chaos.”

Urging them to act now, Deis sent a three-page letter with a supporting memo from Police Chief Eric Jones, which spells out the challenges he’s having recruiting and retaining officers.

The linchpin now driving the exodus is the looming possibility that Stockton may be forced in bankruptcy to renegotiate its contracts with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

If Stockton loses that fight, it won’t be able to offer its police market-rate benefits, Deis said.

“We can’t afford to be outliers from the industry standard for cities,” he said, noting that Stockton also can’t go it alone on pension reform. “It’s clearly not sustainable by anybody’s metrics, and they’ve got to fix it.”

Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown, said he agreed.

“We continue to work with the Legislature to ensure serious, lasting reforms to the state’s pension system are enacted as quickly as possible,” Westrup said.

In its Chapter 9 case filed June 28, the city seeks concessions from its major creditors, asking some Wall Street investors to take a loss.

Two major firms – Assured Guaranty Corp. and National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., which insure millions of dollars worth of Stockton’s bonds – have challenged the city’s bankruptcy.

At a hearing scheduled for Thursday, the two firms will ask U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein to toss the city’s Chapter 9 case because Stockton didn’t ask CalPERS to take a loss, despite it being the city’s largest creditor.

The challenge from Wall Street has put City Hall on the same side of a fight with the Stockton Police Officers’ Association – the two have long battled each other over police pay and benefits.

Attorney David E. Mastagni, who represents the Stockton police union, said the bond insurers misrepresent the facts. CalPERS is like a third-party bank, and any cuts to the city’s pensions will in fact hurt employees, he said.

Police officers have already taken dramatic pay and benefit cuts the past two years. Some officers have lost 30 percent, and with the proposed cuts, some senior officers may lose up to 40 percent from their pay package, he said.

“I think if anybody’s not bearing their fair share, it’s the bond market,” Mastagni said. “The cops are the ones out there jumping fences and putting their lives on the line.”

In his memo in support of Deis’ Aug. 15 letter, Jones quantified the challenges he is having to retain veteran officers and recruiting new ones. Today, he has 45 trainees, meaning one in seven of his officers is a rookie.

Also, 20 to 40 officers have told Jones they are planning to leave in the coming year.

“That is not a good situation,” Jones wrote, noting a 100 percent increase in assaults on officers in a city that ranks among the nation’s 10 most violent.

Stockton is likely to set an all-time high murder rate in 2012, he said, citing last year’s figure of 58 and noting that there have been 43 through Aug. 10.

Jones also challenged creditors who have said in court papers that the city’s 20 percent unemployment rate should make filling out its police ranks no trouble. Its not that easy, Jones said.

“We cannot simply fill these positions from the ranks of the unemployed,” he said. “Very few police officer applicants make it through the testing process.”

Jon Scofield, who left the Stockton Police Department in April, said this is a cops town, where he dreamed of rising up the ranks to possibly one day becoming chief.

“I miss chasing bad guys and finding stolen cars,” he said. “I loved taking criminals off the street.”

But he left behind eight years of experience and took a small pay cut for the stability and great benefits of his new job as a deputy in the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.

There have been no homicides in unincorporated Placer County this year, and residents invite him in for barbecue dinners. That was culture shock for Scofield, who recalled Stockton’s rough and tumble streets.

“Before bankruptcy, I saw the writing on the wall,” he said. “I didn’t want to be part of the city that went through that financial problem.”

Having worked the beat in Stockton for any amount of time is like having a gold star on your résumé.

Agencies are scooping them up, said Tom Hulburt, who left the Stockton Police Department in February after more than 12 years. He’s now an officer with the University of California, Berkeley, Police Department.

“My job is still dangerous, but it is nothing like it was in that town,” he said. His department is hiring, and his former colleagues constantly call to ask when they can apply, he said.

Hulburt said he started work in Berkeley with a lower base salary, but he brings home more each month because of better benefits the university offers. And he doesn’t have to suffer the caustic politics of Stockton, pitting the police against city leaders in a war of words, he said.

“I have not regretted it one day since I’ve been gone,” Hulburt said.