Within the past four years, 25 members of the Costa Mesa police force have said they left the department because of the city’s contentious political environment, according to a recent city report.
The official memo, distributed to the City Council on Friday, also stated that despite receiving thousands of applications within the past several months, only a few people were recruited for the police academy.
The document, prepared by assistant city CEO Tamara Letourneau, said of the 2,782 people who applied for about 25 open Costa Mesa police positions since May 2013, some 188 were interviewed, 104 were selected for background checks, and eight have enrolled in the academy. None have been hired as officers yet.
The memo comes after a Daily Pilot investigation last year that reported the department’s difficulties recruiting desirable candidates, attracting transfers and keeping officers from going to work elsewhere. The reasons, according to sources interviewed by the Pilot, included an “overheated” politicized environment and the ongoing debate about public-employee compensation.
“A number of these folks have left because of the contentious environment and a difficulty in predicting a future for their families and a career,” Police Chief Tom Gazsi said in an interview this week. “They’re seeking agencies where there’s a breadth of assignment opportunities available to them, as well as development and advancement.”
According to the memo, of the 43 department members who left Costa Mesa between 2011 and 2014, three went to Beverly Hills, three to Manhattan Beach, two to Anaheim, two to La Habra and two to Irvine. Other officers went to Westminster, Cypress, Downey, the Orange County district attorney’s office and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Seventeen of the 43 retired. Of those, seven said they retired early because of the “political environment.” Six retired for unspecified medical reasons.
Two officers were terminated. One of those officers had six years of service, the other five. Because the terminations are a confidential personnel matter, officials declined to elaborate on them.
The reasons for leaving the department came through exit interviews, most of which Gazsi personally conducted.
100 officers currently available
The Costa Mesa Police Department employs about 111 sworn officers, but it has allotted funds for 136, excluding the reserve force. Police officials said only about 100 officers are currently available, with the remaining off on work-related injuries.
“It’s time for the city and community to express their appreciation and support to the city employees and Police Department for their faithfulness and diligence during a period of contraction,” Gazsi said.
Letourneau said members of the City Council informally requested the Police Department staffing data.
When asked for comment about the data, however, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said he was the one who specifically asked for it.
“I wanted to know the facts,” Mensinger said in a prepared statement. “I’m troubled when anyone says he or she left the Costa Mesa Police Department because of the political environment, regardless of whether the politics are external or internal.
“As for politics, my family and I are deeply saddened with a variety of issues that have occurred in the past relating to our Police Officers Assn. Regardless, the rank-and-file officers of the Costa Mesa Police Department have continued to work diligently and effectively, and I will keep my commitment to the chief and the department to perpetuate competitive compensation and benefits while addressing concerns associated with pensions and politics.”
Mayor Jim Righeimer objected to any contention that officers have left because they face losing benefits.
“It’s unfortunate that some of the rank and file somehow think that the city is somehow going to take away benefits or something they already have — which the city is not going to do,” he said.
The officers received a 4% raise last October, Righeimer noted, and they are among the highest paid in the state.
“If I could say anything to the rank and file ... [it’s when] your contracts are going to come up, they’re going to be very competitive. I think people will be pleased with the outcome.”
Tensions surrounding lawsuit
Costa Mesa’s police union is facing a lawsuit filed by Mensinger, Righeimer and Righeimer’s wife, Lene — a scenario that critics say has contributed to the hotly politicized environment.
The civil action also targets the union’s former law firm — Upland-based Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir — and private investigator Chris Lanzillo.
The lawsuit, filed in August, alleges a conspiracy stemming from incidents before the November 2012 general election, including a time when Righeimer was followed by Lanzillo. Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective working for Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, reported Righeimer as a possible drunk driver.
Righeimer passed a field sobriety test at his Mesa Verde home that evening. He later called the ordeal “a setup” and showed the public a receipt for two Diet Cokes.
Mensinger has also claimed that in 2012, a GPS tracking device was placed under his truck. The lawsuit claims that the police union, law firm and Lanzillo conspired to intimidate for political gain.
Costa Mesa’s police union has denied any prior knowledge of the GPS tracking or the suspected DUI incident. The union fired the firm soon after details about the drunk-driving accusations emerged.
According to the lawsuit, though the police union is named, it doesn’t target the “general rank-and-file police officers who diligently serve our communities in the face of grave danger, on a daily basis ...”
Righeimer stressed that the litigation should not affect the rank-and-file officers “in any way, shape or form.”
“As a citizen, to find out that someone was trying to extort your elected officials, that’s a problem,” Righeimer said. “It would be easier for my family and Mensinger’s family to just let this go, but the reality of it is you can’t. It’s wrong.”
The Costa Mesa community “needs to know if, in fact, this happened. And if it’s happened, these are methods of extortion. Tracking devices are extortion. It’s criminal. It’s illegal.”