Growing San Diego police officer vacancies prompt chief, union to call for new recruiting campaign

A man wearing a police uniform gestures as he speaks at a press conference next to a California state flag.
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit wants more city spending on officer recruitment.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They’re requesting 10 times more money than the mayor has proposed to attract officers, contending the vacancies are lengthening response times and reducing proactive policing.


San Diego’s worsening rash of police officer vacancies is prompting calls for the city to spend 10 times as much money on recruitment as Mayor Todd Gloria proposed in his budget for the new fiscal year.

The number of vacancies, which surpassed 200 in April, have been blamed for slower response times to nonemergency calls, less proactive policing and shrinking revenue from citations.

Chief David Nisleit says high attrition rates and hundreds of retirements expected in the next few years mean the problem will only get worse without an aggressive marketing and recruiting campaign to attract new officers.

Recent police academies have been operating at 20 percent to 30 percent below capacity because the department hasn’t been able to attract enough recruits, Nisleit told the City Council’s Budget Review Committee last week.

The city’s independent budget analyst predicts the number of officers, now at 1,835, will shrink by roughly 60 in each of the next few years as retirements and other departures outpace new recruits and transfers from other agencies.

The IBA says the city is projected to lose between 192 and 216 officers in each of the next few years. The city could keep pace if the department’s four annual academies were full at 50, but recent academies have had 35 to 40 recruits each.

Nisleit asked Mayor Gloria for $625,000 in recruiting money for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to pay for signing bonuses and a new branding and marketing campaign. The mayor included $50,000 in his proposed budget.

The proposed spending plan is focused on core services and would boost San Diego’s general fund past $2 billion for the first time.

April 14, 2023

The funding Nisleit wants would cover $400,000 in bonuses for officers who come from other law enforcement agencies and those who recruit them and $225,000 to hire a marketing firm.

When the city used a marketing firm in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the number of officer vacancies shrank to less than 50 for the first time in many years, Nisleit said.

“We know that branding and using professional marketing firms can help,” Nisleit said. “We had great success when we previously did this.”

The city used downtown San Diego’s Loma Media for its previous marketing campaign.

The labor union representing police officers — the San Diego Police Officers Association — said the lack of officers is creating response time problems that are worse than those in other law enforcement agencies in the region.

“We are experiencing a severe recruiting crisis,” said union President Jared Wilson.

The marketing campaign should include recruiting events, social media ads and pamphlets highlighting the benefits of being an officer, Wilson said.

Councilmember Jennifer Campbell said she would support money for a new marketing campaign. “If the data shows a professional agency helps, we should do that,” she said.

Councilmember Raul Campillo said he’d support $150,000 for recruiting efforts on college campuses. He said people who choose to become officers a few years later in life are more likely to stick with law enforcement as a career.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said a recent sharp reduction nationally in people choosing law enforcement might make it impossible for the city to fill its vacancies. He said another option would be shifting some duties from police to other city workers.

“I’m not in any way dismissing the need to make sure we are adequately staffed,” Elo-Rivera said. “What I’m trying to do is be realistic.”

Several councilmembers also criticized the mayor’s budget for proposing to add only half as many investigative aides and resource officers as Nisleit requested. Those aides perform lower-level administrative work so officers can focus on crime.

Chief Nisleit says he wants ‘civilianize’ the department, as labor leaders say large raises are needed to fill those jobs.

March 1, 2023

Nisleit wants to more than double the number of investigative aides from 19 to 39, while Gloria proposed an increase to 29.

Councilmember Vivian Moreno said having more aides is smart spending because it reduces the need for officers.

Nisleit said revenue from citations is expected to drop $1.4 million in the new fiscal year, primarily because the city will have fewer officers and they will be focused on more urgent crimes.

He said that in addition to 201 officer vacancies, he is facing 99 civilian vacancies and 24 dispatcher vacancies.