Enforcement Staffing Crisis Looming

New Castle County Courthouse Shooting: 3 Dead, 2 Injured

Shooting Reported at Madison County Courthouse

Judge, Two Others Killed in Courthouse shooting

Man Grabs Bailiff’s Gun; Shoots Self

Gang Member Shot and Killed After Lunging at Witness

A Look Back At 1984 Orlando Courthouse Shooting

These all have one thing in common — they were violence committed in or immediately around a courtroom or courthouse. As much as we like to believe that when we walk into a courtroom we are safe in the heart of our justice system. A place where we get to face our accusers, bear witness in an attempt to right a wrong, surrounded by law enforcement, district attorneys and judges all of a fair and open mind; each and every one with the intention to protect justice and society.

Keep that in mind, and give me a moment to go back a bit before I go forward.

Enforcement staffing has been running low since before the election. The sheriff actually told the public, if I remember correctly, during the Mercury News editorial board’s fake debate that enforcement was only 25 positions down. The reality is that at that time the office was down over 100 positions — and truly was in need of even more than they were down. But who approves additional coded positions when you’re down that many?

The sheriff managed to bring the number down to slightly under 100 in 2015 in September they had 98 unfilled coded positions out of 532 authorized positions. But in just 6 short months, all that has changed again. That brief and minimal staffing improvement failed to prove sustainable in our office. My understanding is that by the end of the month there will be at least 110 unfilled openings. A nearly 21% deficit. At least another 2% are off on leave.

No one realized how serious the problem was until very recently. It’s hard to put together numbers because the sheriff isn’t entirely transparent at times with what is going on. Not even with her own people. Recently people started sitting down and plugging in the numbers that they did have and what they believe they found is serious.

We’re running at a significant deficit and we’re losing on average 2 people per month in enforcement, (5.7% of current staff over the next year) and that number is threatening to increase. All this despite graduating full classes every 6 months out of the academy. Most of those 50 positions go to outside agencies though. The sheriff has only managed to fill 10 to 14 cadet openings for our office, our dropout rate is significant: only 5 or 7 candidates for OUR office graduate each class. It’s been this way since before the election, yet the sheriff has made promotions out of recruiting with such mediocre work product. There is not nearly enough successful candidates to plug the slow leak that just caught up to us and may be getting bigger. I know of at least 6 people in enforcement alone seeking employment elsewhere, in varying stages of testing. I know of several others watching what happens with the BRC very closely with leaving in mind if it’s not taken more seriously. If there are that many that I know of, there are surely more that I don’t. My circle isn’t that big. Alameda and San Mateo is currently seeking both enforcement deputies and deputies for their new jails — so they can draw heavily from both sides of our team if they so choose.

Over the past several years the sheriff has taken on a number of new contracts — Parks, the Coroner’s Office. We know she has been under staffing the VTA contract for years according to events during the election. She also holds courts as a contract and still has a few staffing enforcement needs at the jails, mainly in regards to investigations. There are her contract cities as well… all of this on top of her responsibility to the county.

I’ve known for a while that she has been stealing from Peter to pay Paul for some time now. She shores up VTA by removing people off of patrol within non-contracted county assignments. If she’s short on a contract city, she again pulls from the county. Rather than expanding investigations to cover the investigative needs in the jails she continues to stretch the investigation division thinner and thinner — an act that has resulted in cases going uninvestigated far too often.

The sheriff is “double dipping” staff in other divisions — having them assigned to street patrol, but moving them to Parks, or the VTA contract, showing a body in each location on paper, but only having one actual deputy filling the contract position. There is virtually no transparency so no one is really sure what she is doing to the records at this point. Given what we do know, patrol divisions outside of contracts appear to be slowly decreased to support other areas; I was also told their numbers are about to go down more with Parks needs increasing with the season.

The division I do have documentation for is scary: Courts. Courts has a staffing compliment of 125 deputies. She shores that up with 73 extra help deputies, retired deputies that are looking for a supplemental income. They’re greatly beneficial because they know the job, they are sworn law enforcement and the office can rely on them for a broad number of jobs. But it appears the sheriff is relying on them far too much.

At first blush, 197 total deputies appears to be on the mark, more than meeting standards of the last MOU between the sheriff and the courts requiring 164 deputies in minimum staffing. Keep in mind, when they created the latest MOU which lasts through this June of this year, they reduced deputy staffing by 10 positions. We can safely assume that minimum staffing could be easily maintained at 174 again. Since the contract will be renegotiated in the very near future, we can assume it’s likely to increase to at least that much.  According to some sources in the courts, they are really “dozens” short of functioning now, so let’s just go middle ground with 174 for our purposes here. But there are problems even with that if you know what to look for. First, divide the group into their classifications of deputies and extra help deputies.

Of the 125 deputies, 15 are on leave, mostly medical which is usually long term. The body is listed as filling the position, but not present possibly for as long as a year. So now you’re down to 110 deputies + 73 extra help deputies. Those on leave have the potential of coming back within the year, some also have the potential of medical retirement, or long term disability that extends over a year. I suspect that the courts are overloaded with deputies on leave because if there is a body on paper for a coded position, the sheriff gets paid her contract.

The 73 extra help deputies pose additional problems. They’re retirees with an average age of 60, but ranging from roughly 55 to 80. Extra help deputies, by law, can only work 960 hours per year, effectively cutting 73 down to 36 full time personnel.

She has been relying heavily on the extra help deputies, with nearly 25% of them now having less than 300 (7.5 weeks) of eligible hours this year; 80% of them have less than 480 (12 weeks) eligible hours. There’s also a possible financial benefit to the sheriff here — she gets paid the same in the MOU for extra help deputies, but she pays them only 1st step wages, the lowest possible legal pay.

This means in roughly 3 months, mid-June to beginning of July, we’re looking at losing 80% of the extra help deputies – which means about 15 will be available with varying numbers of hours each. The numbers of available extra help deputies starts to drop off around mid-May with current hours utilization.

Rough math, that leaves us with 125 deputies for the 2nd half of the year, also gradually losing the remainder of the available extra help over time. There are always the sporadic possible changes — some one comes back from leave, which can be countered by someone leaving for another job or retiring (there are quite a few low badge numbers there to increase that potential). If they managed to graduate 5 people from the academy and they go directly to courts, that’s a significant potential for only 130 deputies to fill the minimum needs sometime beginning the last half of the year.

What are minimum needs and will 130 deputies be able to fill them? As mentioned earlier, minimum staffing for the sheriff’s MOU with the courts is 174(164) deputies + extra staffing as needed for “high security events”.  The courts can also request additional services for courtrooms and other service areas — we have no idea what that current obligation stands at.  But at minimum staffing needs, after June we’re likely going to be far below that number if there isn’t a crisis intervention plan to shore up at least the 44 bodies short of minimum.

The sheriff has ignored staffing shortfalls in all areas, she has applied a patch that leaves a continuing gap each an every year, and now we can see the real impact of her poor management. She is heavily relying on an unreliable source of man hours — Extra help. While all are fully capable of working and are an asset to the courthouses, they should be standing by full time deputies as a supplementary position –  back fill for training, vacation, leaves, and supplementary positions. Extra help deputies don’t have mandatory schedules, they can work at will and pick and choose days and weeks and months they’re available. They should not be relied on day to day as part of the core staffing needs to the point of creating a potential staffing disaster. Yet they are filling 64 (37%) of these core mandatory minimum positions.

This is just one area of the sheriff’s office — we know she’s grossly understaffed the jails to the point of endangering everyone. We now are seeing that her increasing inability to recruit quality candidates and a growing heavy reliance on extra help deputies has allowed her to temporarily hide a staffing crisis in enforcement. We see that she has continued to maintain a 20+% deficit in staffing in enforcement, a deficit that is starting to grow again.

The next step the sheriff will probably be forced to take to cover the possible 44 (or more) person shortage in courts is to go back to a mandatory overtime program. A situation where 12 plan deputies will be required to report to courts on days off. No one can deny as a mid- to long-term solution this increases risks in a number of areas. Who can forget the deputy who fell asleep at the wheel a few years ago? A devastating situation to all involved that day. The sheriff has never implemented any kind of training or program or medical education regarding sleep disorders to reduce risks for tired deputies and she is just a few weeks away from adding to that stress and risk.

With the inability to draw top candidates to our office in a highly competitive area, this unfortunately doesn’t look like it will be a short-term solution. It’s not the pay, nor the benefits. The deputies, after years without raises finally saw a 20% pay increase. Our PERS reform is already in place so there is no upcoming dispute there. Even at our lower pay rates, SCCSO used to be able to draw good candidates — the office has a lot of offer candidates with quicker access to special assignments and teams due to its smaller size. But given the increasing reputation the office has for neglecting it’s staff, its teams, its operations, a culture of intimidation, and a growing perception of ethical deficits in the administration, no one is interested. They can get the same opportunities after putting in a few more years to work in larger offices that offer far more functional environments.

At some point it has to be recognized the sheriff’s inability to critically examine her environment and act with forethought to head off future problems is destroying this office. Her unwillingness to recognize and address problems because she believes they will be perceived as a personal weakness or failure is detrimental to everyone.

It’s time for a new sheriff, it’s time for a new administration. We can’t afford to continue to wait for catastrophic failures and then create an entire magical stage show to entrance the public with the amazing tenacity of a sheriff to take on problem after problem as we pretend they’re not of her own making.

It’s time that the recommendation become commonly and clearly stated by all — it’s time for Sheriff Laurie Smith to step down.