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Huntington Beach police struggling to boost staff to pre-recession levels

Huntington Beach police struggling to boost staff to pre-recession levels
A Huntington Beach police cruiser travels along a bike path during the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in 2016. (File Photo)

Despite years of recruiting efforts, the Huntington Beach Police Department is still struggling to refill its ranks to pre-recession levels, adding to heightened tensions within the agency.

Increasing staff is among 16 recommendations for improvement made by Management Partners, a Costa Mesa-based independent consulting firm that was tasked last year with studying operations at the Huntington Beach Police Department amid strained relations between Chief Robert Handy and the unions that represent his staff.

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The tensions between Handy and the Huntington Beach Police Officers Assn., which represents the department's rank-and-file, culminated last year in a no-confidence vote and a request for the chief's ouster. That later was echoed by the Huntington Beach Police Management Assn., which represents captains and lieutenants.

Of 185 employees surveyed by Management Partners, 34 identified staffing as the biggest issue facing the department, according to the consultant's report.

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Employees described the ideal police department as "one that is fully staffed" with a detective bureau that has double the current staffing to make the caseload more manageable, the report states.

"I think everyone feels that we're stretched really thin," Handy said in an interview.

Handy said the department has hired 76 new police officers since he took the helm in December 2013 but that attrition has made it difficult to increase staffing to levels seen before the economic recession hit in 2008, cutting into financial resources.

The police academy, training and employment probation have weeded out some personnel. Many of the officers hired have replaced retirees, according to the report.

"It's one step ahead and two steps back," Handy said. "We're on a constant hamster wheel trying to catch up."

Before the financial downturn, the department had 237 sworn officers. By 2013, the number had shrunk to 197.

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the city spent about $59 million on police services out of its general fund. In the adopted budget for 2017-18, the city allocated about $75.7 million, according to budget documents.

The City Council has agreed to fund 222 sworn positions. The department currently has 214 of those filled and is recruiting to fill the gap, according to Handy.

In 2015, Handy presented the council with a plan to add five officers a year over five years. But funding to make that happen hasn't been identified.

Handy said he's now looking at areas where the city could find additional revenue to be spent on officers. Possible options are expected to be submitted to the council in July.

The department also has ramped up its efforts to recruit officers by launching a team to visit job fairs and military bases and running advertisements for experienced officers in police magazines, among other tactics.

Operating under tight staffing constraints has led to disagreements, especially among police management staff, about how the department is using its limited resources, Handy said.

Some in the department don't believe officers should be focusing on homeless outreach or community policing until staffing increases, Handy said. Others say the chief should be more vocal in making demands to the City Council.

"I believe my role is to do the best job I can in the organization with what they give me while still communicating our needs," Handy said.

Huntington Beach isn't the only area police department that has struggled with staffing in recent years.

Costa Mesa also has been pushing to add personnel. Chief Rob Sharpnack said in January that he expects his agency to be at full strength by summer. Its target is 136 sworn officers.

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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