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LA Sheriff ties $142 million in overtime to 1,000 deputy vacancies

Two Los Angeles sheriffs could be held liable for withholding information after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said they were not immune from liability.
Photo by greg lilly via Flickr Creative Commons
Two Los Angeles sheriffs could be held liable for withholding information after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said they were not immune from liability.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is facing a projected $40 million deficit and vacancies of more than 1,000 deputies, forcing the sheriff to place on hold a plan to equip nearly 6,000 deputies with body cameras, according to agency officials.

In testimony to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Sheriff Jim McDonnell blamed much of the deficit on his estimated $142 million in unbudgeted overtime, which is driven by the vacancies. Here’s what you need to know about the deficit and the understaffing and how they're affecting the sheriff’s ability to provide law enforcement in L.A. County.

Why does the sheriff's department have so many vacancies?

First of all, the sheriff and union that represents deputies provide different numbers when it comes to vacancies at the department, which currently employs 9,295 deputies. 

There are 1,071 vacant positions, according to Assistant Sheriff Jill Serrano, who oversees the department’s finances and administration. She said there are 232 people currently going through the training academy, so the net deficit in deputies is 851.

Serrano – and the sheriff – blame the number of vacancies on recruitment challenges. They say the controversy over police shootings and resulting scrutiny of the industry has discouraged people from becoming deputies. They also say a better job market has prompted people to look for less dangerous jobs.

Other police agencies have reported problems recruiting, but it’s hard to find a department with so many vacancies. One of McDonnell’s opponents in this year’s election accused the sheriff of failing to make recruiting a priority.

"He completely ignored it, and when you do that it has catastrophic results," said Bob Lindsay, a former sheriff’s commander who once oversaw recruiting at the department.

The sheriff has said he has not ignored recruiting and welcomed plans by L.A. County’s Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai to hire a consultant to examine how to recruit more deputies.

How do vacancies affect the body camera program?

Last Fall, the sheriff proposed to the Board of Supervisors a $55 million a year program to place body cameras on 6,000 deputies.

Assistant Sheriff Serrano said it makes no sense to start a new program when there are so many vacancies.

"Until we fill the existing positions that we have, we cannot take on anything else," she said. "Body cameras require additional staff, additional resources."

McDonnell repeatedly has said he intends to follow the lead of the LAPD and place body cameras on all deputies who work the streets. It’s now unclear how long it will be before deputies have cameras, but the program is on hold for at least a year, said Serrano.

The LAPD completed outfitting the last of 7,000 officers with cameras this month.

Which other programs are suffering?

The sheriff’s department currently has 17 mental evaluation teams, known as MET teams, each of which consist of one deputy and one clinician from the county’s Department of Mental Health. It has plans to expand to 23, but the high number of vacancies prevent adding more than that, according to Serrano.

"The MET teams are the way of the future," McDonnell has said, as the number of calls involving mentally ill people rises.

The department needs up to 80 MET teams to be able to respond in a timely fashion to situations involving people who are mentally ill across LA County and reduce the number of shootings involving mentally ill people, according to a report by the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.

What else is causing the deficit?

Serrano said two other factors are contributing to the deficit.

One is the rise in healthcare costs for retired sheriff’s personnel. That’s gone up 12 percent over the past five years, she said.

The other is a rise of 20 percent in worker compensation costs over the past five years, said Serrano.

But the main factor driving the sheriff’s deficit is the vacancies, said Serrano.

What effect is all of this having on sheriff's deputies?

L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies are obligated to work overtime. 

“That means at the end of your shift, you might be ordered to work an additional eight hour shift or you are ordered to come in on your day off,” said Derek Hsieh, executive director of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.

This is affecting both the morale of deputies as well as their health, said Hsieh, adding, "it’s a significant problem."