021816 LPD Town Hall 01.jpg (copy)

In this Feb. 18, 2016 file photo, Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh speaks at a town hall meeting at the Embassy Suites. On Tuesday night, Walsh delivered a State of the Lompoc Police Department address to the Lompoc City Council and raised several concerns regarding the future of the department.

Len Wood, Staff

Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh expressed major concerns about the future of his department during a presentation to the Lompoc City Council on Tuesday night.

Walsh delivered a State of the Lompoc Police Department address early in the meeting. During the presentation, he touched on many of the challenges facing the department, including budget woes, an inability to retain personnel, difficulties with bringing on new employees, expected rises in crime and reductions in the services the department provides to the community.

Walsh began his presentation by saying that the timing had “nothing to do with” the council’s ongoing budget discussions but that he believed the policing issues needed to be discussed.

“This is something I wanted to bring to your attention because I don’t want you to get caught flat-footed,” he told the members of the council. “It’s not going to be a pleasant presentation. I’ll just apologize right up front, but I think you need to know where we’re at.”

Walsh presented crime statistics compiled in the city from 2010 through 2016 that showed steady rates for most offenses, but sharp increases in theft-related crimes. Walsh attributed that rise in thefts to the effects of Proposition 47, a referendum passed by state voters in 2014 that reduced the penalties for some property and drug crimes.

Walsh said similar rises in those types of crimes are being seen throughout the state, though not nationally.

“We’re trying to get a handle on that, but it’s the state of affairs here in California,” he said.

He pointed to the 2016 passage of Proposition 57 as another harbinger for increases in crime. Prop. 57 gives increased chances of parole, and more opportunities for early release, to felons convicted of nonviolent crimes.

“If they don’t have a plan, they’re going to have to come up with a plan,” Walsh said of those felons being let out of custody earlier than anticipated. “We’re already seeing in parts of the state that some of those folks are committing crimes, and that’ll happen. It’s gonna happen in our town as well.”

Compounding the issue, Walsh explained, is that the LPD is already understaffed. He said the outlook on that front, at least for the near future, doesn’t look promising.

Currently, the department has 10 officer vacancies out of a total of 50 sworn positions. Walsh said that six of his current officers are in the hiring process at other departments, so he expects that number of vacancies to grow to 16 in the coming months.

Additionally, the department only has four of its eight dispatcher positions filled, though three of those are new hires who are still in training.

“The reason I bring this up is because I’m a little worried that it’s going to be difficult to police Lompoc with that amount of shortages, and I’m also worried about the potential for other officers to put in to leave,” he said.

Mayor Bob Lingl asked Walsh why the LPD has such a high turnover rate.

Walsh said the No. 1 reason is due to the department’s low wages, though he noted that some want to move to be closer to family and others just find that police work isn’t for them.

Because of the shortages, Walsh noted that he and other captains, along with other detectives and officers, are being pulled away from their usual jobs and into patrol duty. The shortages have also led to reduced traffic enforcement — there is no full-time traffic officer, Walsh said — and have left no full-time gang officer and just one full-time narcotics officer, though that will go away if the department goes down to 16 officers as expected.

“I’m not trying to be doom and gloom — that’s the facts,” Walsh said.

The staffing shortages are also leading to increased overtime within the department, which in turn is leading to burnout among officers, Walsh said. The LPD is generating about 825 hours of overtime per pay period, which adds up to about $1 million in overtime payments annually.

Capt. Joe Mariani took over the presentation for a few minutes to detail the process for, and challenges involved with, hiring new officers.

Mariani said that only about one out of every 12 candidates makes it through the hiring process, which is in line with the national averages. Since September 2016, he said the LPD has completed 67 background investigations on candidates, which resulted in just seven new hires, and only four of those were officers.

He said the city invests about $157,000 over a two-year span on vetting and training new hires. That vetting process includes polygraph, psychological and medical exams, and then the candidates are sent to an academy for training. Those academy costs are typically covered by the hiring agency.

Mariani said help could soon be on the way, as Hancock College is set to graduate 27 law enforcement recruits Thursday.

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“This weekend we’re planning on testing 40 police candidates at Allan Hancock College,” he said.

Walsh said that many factors play into whether a candidate makes it through the process and gets hired. Among them, he said, are finances, credit, drug use, internet use and truthfulness.

As an example, he brought up a recent candidate in his or her mid-20s who had more than $100,000 in credit card debt.

“That shows poor judgment and I don’t want that 24-year-old at 3 o’clock in the morning to stop a drug dealer with $10,000 cash, because that’s tempting,” Walsh said. “Is that (dishonesty) gonna happen? I don’t know. But, like (Mariani) said, your best form of risk management is to make sure you don’t put yourself in a position where corruption can occur.”

Walsh said decision-making is also important.

“Unfortunately, drugs are kind of looked at as minor and … not a big deal,” he said. “Well, it is a big deal if you used methamphetamine for five years and then quit. OK, so you’re not using anymore, but you’re gonna run across meth all the time. It’s like putting an alcoholic behind the bar to serve beer all night. It’s too tempting.”

He noted that strong communication skills are also important and encouraged potential candidates to volunteer with community organizations, because “90 percent of what we do is talk to people.”

Walsh concluded his presentation by stating that he thinks recent pro-marijuana legislation, like the passage of Proposition 64 last year, will only make hiring even more difficult for departments like his. Prop. 64 essentially legalized recreational marijuana use in the state.

“Marijuana is legal and it’s gonna be a problem and I think that’s gonna hamper us as well,” Walsh said. “People are gonna come and say, ‘Hey, it’s legal just like alcohol.’ But we’re a drug-free place and it’s still illegal in the federal system, so it’s gonna be an issue. I can’t have somebody that’s been smoking weed come to work and carry a gun.”

Despite the many challenges facing the LPD, Walsh praised his employees, whom he said have continued to work hard and set a high bar within the department.

“Even though I’m painting a dark picture," Walsh said, "the work continues and we’re gonna keep doing the work.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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