Eight months ago, a Costa Mesa police officer pulled up to an Eastside grocery store.
Four teenagers had tried to steal liquor, and employees called for help in restraining them. Inside, one of the kids reached for the officer's service gun. Another took a swing, hitting the cop under the eye.
An off-duty Orange County sheriff's deputy, who happened to be at the store, jumped in to help, and he and the officer wrangled two of the teenagers. Reinforcements arrived, detaining the other two suspects.
The Oct. 15 fight came at an expense. One officer needed stitches. Another suffered a strain that's since kept him from working.
They were not alone. October marked the worst stretch of on-duty injuries in years — eight Costa Mesa Police Department officers were hurt in two weeks alone. Those numbers are in line with a larger trend. Since 2009, on-duty injuries have doubled, according to data the Daily Pilot obtained through a Public Records Act request.
There were 10 injuries — meaning officers were hurt so badly they couldn't work for various periods of time — in 2009. That number, which climbed by two or three a year, reached 20 in 2013.
The spike in on-duty injuries, department brass and rank-and-file officers agree, is due to an aging, smaller core of officers working longer hours with less backup. The injuries, they contend, are partly the result of a departmental staffing shortage that has left officers vulnerable, particularly when they work alone.
Despite the injuries and lower staffing levels, elected officials argue that the crime rate has dropped and patrol levels — the number of cops on the street at any given time — remains high.
The CMPD is scrambling to fill 30 vacancies accumulated over four years. As cops headed for retirement or transfers, replacements weren't hired because of tightening budgets and a fight with the City Council over pension reform.
The departmental budget allows 136 sworn personnel, but the CMPD is operating with only two-thirds of that, according to the city's human resources department.
Because of the vacancies, injuries and other factors keeping officers off the job, only 86 sworn personnel were available to work as of Friday.
"As a woman, as a person who lives on the Westside, as a mother and a grandmother, that scares me," said City Councilwoman Wendy Leece.
'Fewer people working more hours'
The Costa Mesa Police Assn. says a ballooning workload is wearing down its members.
"Fewer people working more hours, that's what it comes down to," said Rob Dimel, the association's president.
Indeed, overtime has increased, according to annual reports on employee compensation. Excluding officers ranked sergeant and above, Costa Mesa police worked an average of 263 hours of overtime in 2013 compared with 249 in 2012.
The 2011 report did not track overtime by hours, but according to dollar amounts, the trend continued.
Officers earned an average of $13,500 of overtime in 2011 — about $3,000 less than in 2012 and $4,000 less than in 2013.
Dimel, who works patrol, responded to a disruptive-student call earlier this year at Costa Mesa High School.
The officer said he made the mistake of putting his hand on the boy's shoulder to try to calm him.
The agitated boy allegedly charged, and Dimel wrapped his arms around the student. They fell to the ground, where they stayed until the boy calmed down.
Dimel tweaked an ankle and scraped an elbow in the altercation.
"You're fatigued. You make mistakes. You get injured," he said.
As Dimel walked into the parking lot to leave the school, backup arrived.
About half of the department's recent injuries occurred when officers were alone, according to an estimate from Police Chief Tom Gazsi, who sometimes goes on calls himself when he knows a solo officer is heading into an unpredictable situation.
Tense relationship with City Council majority
Costa Mesa police began relying more on overtime during an informal four-year hiring freeze that began as budgets tightened in 2008 and 2009.
But hiring to replace expected attrition continued to languish as the CMPD developed a tense relationship with a largely new council.
In 2010, now-Mayor Jim Righeimer won a council seat while running on a platform of reforming public-employee pensions and compensation.
The police association railed against Righeimer during the election season, buying the web domain righeimer.com, where it posted information about the candidate's past financial woes.
Righeimer won a council seat, but the ideological battle between him and the association had just begun.
In a contentious move that prompted a police chief's resignation, the council restructured the department in 2011. The move reduced the number of sworn peace officers in favor of less-costly civilian support staff.
Righeimer made it clear he opposed hiring new officers under the department's retirement plan, which he described as overly generous and financially unsustainable.
But the city and police association never reached an agreement on how to roll back defined benefits for new hires.
It wasn't until Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that reduced pensions for new municipal hires that city CEO Tom Hatch gave police authorization to hire.
In December 2012, Chief Gazsi announced the department's first new officer hire since 2008.
Hiring police before Brown's bill went into effect in 2013 would have been a worse outcome because the officers would come with decades of debt, meaning pension obligations, according to the mayor.
"This is a non-issue," Righeimer said, pointing out that the department's 30 vacancies are only temporary.
The mayor's political opponents accuse him and his allies of demonizing local police by painting them as greedy public employees who wield their power through unions.
"It's an outright effort and ideology that wants to bust the Costa Mesa Police Department without consideration for the effects on public safety," Leece said.
The animosity goes both ways. Last year, Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger sued the police union, accusing members of being part of a scheme that included tracking Mensinger's truck by GPS and falsely reporting Righeimer for diving under the influence.
The association has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the allegedly dirty tactics. The group recently appealed after a judge ruled there was enough evidence for the lawsuit to go to trial.
This tension, combined with the hiring freeze, has driven down police staffing levels, according to a city report released in February.
By studying a four-year span of exit interviews with cops, the report found that 25 of 43 departing officers said they left because of Costa Mesa's contentious political climate.
"Basically they have succeeded," Leece said of Righeimer and the council majority in which she and Councilwoman Sandra Genis are outvoted 3 to 2. "They have succeeded in their efforts to demoralize the police department."
According to Righeimer, the lawsuit was necessary — not politically motivated — because he and Mensinger's rights were violated by political opponents.
"I don't think anyone in the community thinks it's OK for the police association or someone they hired to put a tracking device on an elected official's car," he said. "That has to be investigated, and that has to be looked at."
He also points to crime rates to downplay any perceived problems from fewer police.
In 2013, overall crime in Costa Mesa dropped 12%.
"I have a wife and three young daughters who live in this city," Righeimer said. "It's important to me that everyone is safe, and in fact we are by the numbers."
Violent crime stayed almost flat last year after a 10% bump in that category, and a 15% spike of property crimes in 2012.
In 2011, property crimes rose 11% while violent crimes fell by about 4%.
Any idea that a wave of crime is about to flood the city has been planted to help officers win a more lucrative contract after their current one expires at the end of the month, according to Righeimer.
"Part of this whole negotiations process is to put fear into the hearts of the public that they're not safe," he said.
Longer shifts lead to more injuries
Though police complain that thinner ranks mean more overtime, at the June 3 council meeting the department did not turn down an opportunity for its members to work extra hours controlling traffic around the Orange County Fair.
During a presentation to the council on the topic, Sgt. Bryan Wadkins said the department had to ask for help from Laguna Beach police this year to cover the assignment.
Righeimer asked if the CMPD would rather have the Orange County Sheriff's Department relieve them altogether of their fair duties.
"To clarify the question, do the officers want this overtime or don't want to do this overtime?" Righeimer asked.
"The officers do," Wadkins said from the podium. "With our staffing issues, we need to make sure that patrol overtime is filled first."
Some of Costa Mesa's officers indeed volunteer for extra shifts. One collected 882 overtime hours in 2013, earning him about $60,000 on top of his $100,000 base salary.
Five more worked between 700 and 850 extra hours.
Others, however, want to avoid O.T. but are forced into working it, especially when there are not enough bodies to cover unexpected sick days or court appearances.
"Frequently, to maintain staffing levels, folks are asked to work overtime," Gazsi said. "In many cases, our dedicated personnel will work with injuries when they know the period of deployment is between 10 and 12 hours."
As longer shifts became the norm, more officers applied to take time off for injuries they may not have previously claimed.
"When they expect to work 16 to 18 hours, they're less likely to return knowing they're going to be in a condition that will aggravate and prolong the injury," Gazsi said.
All on-duty injuries are reviewed, and a city-approved doctor must examine an officer to determine if the ailment is legitimate and work-related. Lately, more cops have been going through that process.
A culture that took pride in pushing through pain has faded, according to rank-and-file officers.
"I think a lot of people are just fed up and less willing to work injured," Dimel said.
Progress being made
Costa Mesa has been working since December 2012 to close the hiring gap.
Applicants continue to flow in, but background checks required of veteran peace officers, as well as academy time for rookies, make for long hiring intervals. To combat that, the city has assigned extra help to screen potential new recruits.
"The department and the city are hiring vigorously, and I do appreciate the support from the council and human resources to push this as quickly as possible," Gazsi said.
But officers are still leaving the department — two retired Friday — and injuries continue to accumulate.
Two weeks ago, three Costa Mesa police officers responded to an apartment where a woman was allegedly threatening to kill her children. The cops found two toddlers with their mother, according to an officer who is familiar with the incident.
At the scene, police decided they needed to take the mother into custody for a mental evaluation, but it wasn't easy.
"She's high on methamphetamine; she fights them, and she's a big woman," said the officer, who requested anonymity.
Because she was in front of her kids, the cops decided not to use batons or Tasers.
"They're just trying to use controlling force," the officer said. "And it was really a mistake in a lot of ways because she was big, and she was strong, and she was high."
The three cops eventually arrested her, but none came away unscathed. One hurt a knee, another suffered a hernia and a third triggered an old back injury.
Including that incident, at least seven officers have been hurt on duty so far in 2014, according to the city's data, slightly behind last year's pace.
Right now, the police department has enough candidates in the pipeline that it expects to hire 20 to 25 officers by December, but a full force could be more than a year away.
In a February email, which the Daily Pilot obtained through a public records request, Gazsi estimated that it would take at least 18 months from then before staffing returned to approved levels.