Staffing challenges complicate policing in Sonoma Valley

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Police staffing in Sonoma Valley has been a challenge for years – with tight budgets and strict hiring requirements posing a variety of roadblocks to local law enforcement recruitment.

But just how much of a challenge it is depends upon whom you ask.

Last November in a community meeting with the Springs Community Alliance, Sgt. Greg Piccinini and deputy Nick DeGuilio, both Valley-based officers with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, described Valley staffing as seriously over-committed.

“This area is truly understaffed for law enforcement,” Piccinini said to the group of about 30 Springs-area residents.

As an example, Piccinini said that daily from 7 to 9 p.m. and again from midnight to 7 a.m., two deputies cover the Sonoma Valley’s 166 square miles. The rest of the time, four deputies patrol from Los Guillicos and the Solano County line north to south, and Stage Gulch Road and the Napa County line west and east.

Sonoma Sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. Spencer Crum said that the level of call volume an area receives typically dictates its staffing. “With the relatively low call volume during these hours we feel this is a proper span of control,” Crum told the Index-Tribune.

Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez confirmed Piccinini’s data. “Between 2 and 7 a.m., we are not at the National Police Standards recommended staffing ratios,” he said. “But it’s a guideline. If things were going out of control and this was a daily occurrence and we needed more supervision on the streets, I think we would look at that and make an adjustment.”

Rodriguez, meanwhile, said it was a matter of perspective. “You’ve got two very experienced deputies with a difference of opinion (about staffing levels),” Rodriguez said.

“The county budget changes from year to year,” said Crum. “Some lean years we lose programs and in good years some positions are added back. It is very cyclical. The administration looks at running the office as efficiently as possible to give the residents the best possible amount of service within budgetary guidelines.”

Rodriguez acknowledged that fluctuating staffing levels can put extra pressure on deputies. “Cutbacks do take effect after a while,” he said.

Forced to trim 82.2 positions countywide in 2008, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office adapted with a large-scale restructuring of operations, according to Piccinini. The gang task force, community policing program, and narcotics units were either disbanded or consolidated, and the bomb squad and dive team were reframed as collateral assignments or staffed by a team of community volunteers. The Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Unit lost personnel, too, despite a tripling of reported cases since 2016, said Piccinini, who said he had worked in such a unit from 2016 to 2018.”

“He’s not wrong,” Chief Rodriguez said. “In 2008 we had more staffing levels, both law enforcement and civilian.”

Springs Community Alliance chairman Rich Lee was among the 30-some Springs residents in attendance at the November meeting in which the deputies discussed local law enforcement staffing. Lee was sobered by the deputies’ presentation.

“The message is clear,” said Lee. “We have kind of a crisis in law enforcement. People shouldn’t just sit back and think everything’s fine.”

With no shortage of scofflaws to keep fewer officers busy, there’s also been a cultural trend away from law enforcement careers, Piccinini said. Vacancies often prove difficult to fill.

“People don’t want to be cops right now. We are seeing a decline in qualified applicants,” Piccinini said.

And for the people who do, the road is long.

“Of 100 applicants, maybe 80 can pass the written test,” DeGuilio said. And then, he added there is an oral board exam, background processing and, for those who reach that far, six months of police academy and six months of field training.

Additionally, candidates must pass a pair of polygraph tests, and psychological, medical and physical exams. According to Piccinini and DeGuilio, approximately 100 applicants are vetted for each successful hire, and vacancies can take years to fill.

Crum acknowledged that attracting recruits has become more difficult in recent years. “Public scrutiny is at an all-time high for law enforcement officers, and we have a very strong economy,” said Crum. “We believe those are two significant factors influencing those who might be interested in law enforcement careers. People are choosing other high paying available careers that don’t carry the liability.”

Across the country, that dynamic is trending. Police departments in every state report personnel shortages. Since 2013, the total number of working officers in the U.S. has fallen by 23,000.

Meanwhile, heavy overtime is often part of existing deputies’ schedules – with 60-hour weeks not uncommon, said Piccinini.

Countywide, 28 deputies are currently sidelined by injury. Forty will be eligible to retire over the next four years, followed by 53 potential retirees in the following three years, a count that totals 40 percent of Sonoma County’s entire law enforcement roster, Piccinini said.

Sonoma’s men and women in blue carry on nevertheless, showing up for emergencies big and small. It’s a tough job, though, and takes a toll on those who do it.

“We’re human too,” Piccinini told the community group. “We see a whole lot of horrible stuff. If you have a good experience with a cop, let them know. It keeps us going.”

In the end, according to the deputies, the very best way to keep a community safe is as old-fashioned and analogue as neighborhood patrols. “Know your neighbor,” Piccinini advised. “If you see a person who’s not supposed to be there, call us. The only way we can truly help folks like you is if you help us.”

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