Government / Politics

Sheriff decries ‘desperate’ staffing levels in his department

Criminals are aware of barebones patrols in the short-staffed department, Thompson says

San Benito County Sheriff Darren Thompson said the staffing level in his department is "desperate" after "deep and damaging" budget cuts have reduced the number of employees from 96 to 47 over the past six years. On Tuesday, he urged the Board of Supervisors to consider reversing that trend, as at times there are just two deputies patrolling 1,400 square miles locally.

"In 2009, we staffed 24 deputy sheriffs," he said during a department head report to the Board of Supervisors. "Today we staff 12." Of that dozen, two are bailiffs at the county courthouse, two are detectives, one is a school resource officer and two are deputies in training. That leaves five deputy sheriffs on patrol, with three of those patrol sargeants.

"We are unable to peform contemporary police work" such as separating family members during a domestic violence situation, setting a perimeter at a crime scene and providing a "reasonable response" to a school shooting, Thompson said. "If two staff members are at one call, there is no one to respond" to another call.

The most recent, major staffing cuts to the sheriff's office were made in 2012, when 10 deputy sheriff positions were cut, including six layoffs and four positions left vacant. Thompson said that since then, "tragic events in surrounding counties have resulted in the loss of officers."  While that hasn't happened in the two-and-a-half years since the deputy sheriff cutback, Thompson said "30 months is too long to count on luck; we need immediate help."

He said he and his staff "have been very sympathetic to our county's struggles" but have hoped "that crooks would not be aware" of the low staffing levels. "This year we've arrested crooks who are using police scanners and are aware of our dismal staffing levels. They said they know only two deputies are responding."

As an example of the low staffing levels, Thompson said the sheriff's department's response time to a bank robbery in San Juan Bautista was approximately 22 minutes. The school resource officer at San Benito High School was the first to arrive on scene and the sheriff himself was second. Thompson noted that many areas of the county, including Spring Grove, Aromas, Paicines, Bitterwater and even San Juan Bautista "rarely see a marked unit" on patrol.

The sheriff's department has two deputies in training who are expected to be ready for duty in 12 weeks and the department is recruiting to fill two vacancies, though Thompson said that process has been "slow and difficult" because neighboring agencies offer better salaries and advancement opportunities. Planned residential development will mean sheriff's resources will be "further stretched," he added.

Thompson knew that supervisors could take no immediate action on the matter, since it was brought up during a department report, but he said he was hoping his presentation was "cultivating a seed" that would result in the staffing issue being addressed by the board.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said the staffing challenges need "to be a priority for us to improve that situation" and that he suggested it become an agendized item either at the board's Dec. 17 meeting or at the first meetign in January.

Supervisor Margie Barrios told Thompson that "we have been very fortunate that we have been so short-staffed and yet you have provided a level of safety for this community." She said more patrol deputies are needed  and that "it's better to do this sooner than later."

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said he, too, wants "to see more boot out there" and hoped that the issue could be addressed in January, as did Board Chair Jerry Muenzer.

Supervisor Robert Rivas called the staffing shortage "a liability issue for our county," though he cautioned that any discussion of additional staffing must be done in a fiscally responsible manner.

Adam Breen

Adam Breen has been a San Benito County resident since 1980 and graduated from Sacred Heart School and San Benito High School before earning a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno. A father of two sons, Adam has taught newspaper, English and yearbook at SBHS for the past decade, after six years as a magazine editor for Santa Clara University. He previously was editor of the Hollister Free Lance and content director for BenitoLink.