South Lake Tahoe struggles with shortage of available police officers

Feeling the burden of a lack of law-enforcement personnel in California, the South Lake Tahoe Police Department struggles to fill open positions and keep the minimum number of patrol officers on the street.

But with a new contract for patrol officers and a shift in recruitment strategy, Police Chief Terry Daniels hopes to have more officers patrolling the streets by this fall.

South Lake Tahoe currently has allocations for 43 officer positions through the city's general fund, but is short nine officers in its patrol division.

"This is not a South Lake Tahoe issue, this is a statewide issue," Daniels said. "Every chief and sheriff I've talked to has recruiting issues."

Estimates for the number of vacant police officer positions in California run as high as 15,000, but Bob Stresak, spokesman for the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, estimates there are about 10,000 unfilled law-enforcement jobs around the state.

Many factors contribute to the shortage of qualified law-enforcement officers throughout California.

A recent wave of police officer retirements, as well as rigorous application requirements for police officers, are among the major reasons behind the shortage, Stresak said.

"Drug use has been a big issue," Daniels said. "A lot of people don't pass the background check."

The physical demands of law enforcement also have kept a heavier population from being viable applicants, Daniels added.

Obesity among adults has increased from 15 percent in 1980 to almost 33 percent in 2004, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.

Another pool of applicants is otherwise occupied: A greater number of military personnel - a traditional source of officers - are serving extended stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, Daniels said.

Potentially the largest obstacle to attracting officers to the police department is the high cost of living relative to the pay in South Lake Tahoe.

"We're all fighting for the small, reduced pool of applicants that are out there," Daniels said. "It's a really competitive market."

Although Daniels maintains the shortage has not affected the quality of police work in town, understaffing has caused response times to increase and follow-up investigations to take longer.

"It just takes longer to reach calls," Daniels said. "We still come, but it may take a little bit longer than what people are accustomed to."

Four patrol officers is considered the minimum number to effectively patrol South Lake Tahoe's streets.

At times during the shortage, which has been happening for at least the past year, the department sometimes has reduced patrols to three officers during slow periods to relieve overworked officers. Although Bonanza Produce Manager Johnny Grossi said he'd like to see a greater police focus outside of the state line area, he's been satisfied with the police follow-up to four incidents of vandalism at the store in six months.

"What we have done, we have tried to recruit lateral officers - trained officers trained from other areas," Daniels said. "That strategy has not worked."

Instead, the department hopes to recruit and train officers from the local community, as well as surrounding areas, such as the Carson Valley. By recruiting officers who already have a connection to and knowledge of the local community, Daniels hopes to attract high-quality officers and increase the retention rate of those hired by the department.


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