‘Catastrophic staffing shortage’: Northern California sheriff to suspend daytime patrols
A Northern California sheriff’s office plans to suspend daytime patrols starting this week, citing “a catastrophic staffing shortage” throughout the agency.
The Tehama County Sheriff’s Office announced the suspension — which will start Sunday — in a news release stating that over the last several years there have been “difficulties with recruitment and retention of employees, which has been directly linked to pay disparities.”
Recent shortages led the Sheriff’s Office to reassign deputies from the operations division to fill vacancies within the courts and jail facility, leaving them “with insufficient staff to sustain 24-hour patrol services.”
Sheriff’s deputies in the county, which sits about 120 miles north of Sacramento, will maintain nighttime patrols. Deputies assigned night shift patrols “will triage and respond to the open, non-emergency calls for service that come in throughout the day,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The California Highway Patrol will respond to life-threatening emergencies during the hours that the Sheriff’s Office is unable to provide patrol services, according to last week’s announcement. It is unclear when daytime patrols will return.
The county has an estimated population of more than 65,000 and covers almost 3,000 square miles, according to census data. Largely rural, about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Tehama County stretches from the Sacramento Valley east to the Sierra Nevada.
“It’s a heartbreaking decision to have to shut down our patrol services during those hours,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Rob Bakken. “By nature, we want to make it work, and we’ve put a Band-Aid on things for the last few years, trying to shuffle staffing around. ... We just finally got to a point where there were just not enough employees to keep it going anymore.”
Earlier this year, due to similar staffing issues, the office had to shut down its dispatch center and contract with the city of Red Bluff’s police department to provide dispatch services for at least a couple of months, Bakken said.
The Sheriff’s Office is supposed to have about 120 total employees, including support, dispatch, patrol and corrections, Bakken said, adding that the office is about 32 positions short.
The jail and investigation units are more than 50% understaffed and patrol is “significantly understaffed,” Bakken said. Over the last year and a half, he added, they’ve lost at least 13 employees from jails and five or more between investigations and patrol.
“The problem right now is that there are very few people who are looking to go into law enforcement, more specifically corrections,” said Bakken, who has been with the Sheriff’s office for about 22 years. “Being that we are the lower paid in the area, we can’t compete for the very few possible applicants that are out there.”
The Tehama County Deputy Sheriff’s Assn. placed the blame squarely on the county’s Board of Supervisors in an angry Facebook post.
“We have spoken [to] the board for several years and warned them that staffing levels are too low,” the post read. “Rather than take swift and decisive action, they have delayed and allowed too many good employees to leave.”
The five-member board pushed back in a statement last week, stating that the county has responded with steep wage increases in order to retain and attract personnel. Deputy sheriffs have received pay increases totaling 41.8% over the last five years, including a 22.8% increase approved by the board on Nov. 8.
The board said it had directed county staff to begin a compensation study in September 2021. Before the study, base pay for deputy sheriffs topped out at $5,593 per month, according to the board. That will now increase to $6,871 per month. For a correctional deputy, that will increase from $4,947 to $5,326 per month.
The pay study “now brings salaries into equilibrium across all county departments and into competitive range with competitor counties,” the board said in its statement.
“Over many years, the county has seen a lack of day patrol due to court hearings, illnesses, vacations, injuries and various other reasons. A lack of day patrol is not new, especially in today’s environment where it is very tough to be a deputy or correctional officer,” the statement read.
It continued by criticizing the Sheriff’s Office for the message it sent to the public: “What is new is a willingness to publicize this structural weakness to criminals right before the holiday season and declare open season on our law-abiding residents and visitors.”
The board also expressed concern that the announcement “encourages vigilantism.”
On the Tehama County Deputy Sheriff’s Assn. Facebook post, one commenter said, referring to carrying a concealed weapon, “it’s more or less a message to the people with ccw’s to get ready to take over day shift.” Another said, “I tell everyone to take a firearms coarse and get their conceal permit bcuz it is only going to get worse.”
Despite the disagreement between the county supervisors and sheriff’s department, Jonathan Thompson, executive director and chief executive of the National Sheriffs’ Assn., said similar staffing issues are playing out across the country.
“We’re seeing a near crisis level of shortages of both patrol duty deputies as well as jail duty deputies,” Thompson said. “It’s pretty much across several demographic categories of small, medium, large, urban, rural. It’s a pretty dramatic situation for many agencies across the country.”
Thompson pointed to what he called “a perfect storm situation” causing staffing problems, including a lag in compensation, a post-COVID crisis in which a number of people left the profession and a “significant downturn in interest in being in law enforcement, because it’s such a high stress, high demand job.”
Bakken acknowledged that the Tehama County board has increased pay but said that it’s “not at the same pace that our competing agencies have increased their pay.” He pointed to surrounding agencies that are offering tens of thousands of dollars in hiring bonuses.
“It’s those kinds of things that are stealing our employees away from us,” he said.
In the rural community of Rancho Tehama Reserve, residents were already concerned about the lack of law enforcement officials in the area. A SWAT team commander told KRCR-TV earlier this year that the Sheriff’s Office had discussed getting a deputy to the area but was struggling with staffing shortages.
Richard Gutierrez, treasurer of Rancho Tehama Reserve’s homeowners association, said the latest cutbacks will “negatively impact” the community.
Gutierrez detailed the curtailing of sheriff patrols Monday, moments before a remembrance service for the victims of a mass shooting here five years ago. Sheriff’s deputies responded to the carnage from miles away.
“Days back, in the past, we used to have a sheriff’s patrol come through, but due to their budget they don’t do it anymore,” he said. “We call the Sheriff’s Office and they say unless it’s an emergency they can’t send anyone out.”
A gunman shot up his rural California community. Five people were killed and 14 others wounded before he took his own life. Five years later, the scars remain.
Gutierrez said that in one recent incident, a man threatened to kill all the members of the board. When officials called the Sheriff’s Office, he said, they were told that unless the man actually shoots someone, the office couldn’t send a deputy.
“We all pay taxes, and I think we’re entitled to police presence,” Gutierrez said. “We’d like to see more police presence.”
Javier Sandoval is a security guard with American Safe Security, which contracts with Rancho Tehama Reserve to patrol the community.
He said sheriff’s patrols are vital to keeping people safe in the small town.
“I appreciate when they come because they keep control over the Rancho,” he said, using a nickname for the community. “I see their cars very frequently. I’m not sure what will happen if they have less patrols, but it’s very good when they come out here.”
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