When not filling out paperwork or studying her policy readings, Ashley Brandow spends her workdays rolling in the passenger seat of a Sonora Police Department patrol car, shadowing an established officer during her 14-week field training.

Brandow, 31, of Sonora, has been thrust into the “constantly changing” role of community police work following her graduation from the San Joaquin Delta College Peace Officer Academy on Nov. 22. In years prior, Brandow waitressed, worked as a veterinary assistant and actress, and even as a cavern tour guide.

But somehow, she said, the perpetual schedule of “same cave, same tour, different people” was not fulfilling her professional ambitions.

“I’ve always had this as one of the million things that I wanted to do,” she said. “And a few years ago I narrowed it down to this.”

Brandow followed her father, Dennis Townsend, a current Sonora Police Reserve Officer and former Cal Fire Battalion Chief, into public service and recalled the “special” moment when he pinned the police badge on her crisp new uniform.

“I love this community. I’m finding that I know quite a few people that I talk to sometimes,” she said. “I feel at home here. I really want to serve the community I grew up in.”

For some, a career in law enforcement is the fulfillment of a personal destiny. For others, the career is revealed as a stable, albeit dangerous, position after a spate of many odd jobs or vocational pathways.

But throughout the Mother Lode, law enforcement agencies agree, more recruits are needed.

Vacancies and staff shortages

The Sonora Police Department is now operating with three vacancies, said Interim Police Chief Turu VanderWiel, and it has been well over “a couple years” since the department has been fully staffed.

“It is pretty difficult to keep any department fully staffed, whether it’s us or a bigger department like Stanislaus County,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to hear that any are fully staffed for an entire year straight. It just doesn’t happen.”

The most widely utilized strategy for recruiting permanent law enforcement agents, across both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, is to hire locally.

“There’s a likelihood that, because of their connection to the area, they may stay,” VanderWiel said.

But especially for younger recruits, origins to the county or city of their law enforcement work is not always promise to maintain an entire career at the same agency. But a young hire always has the potential, law enforcement representatives say, to stick to the area where they start.

“Just because they’re homegrown doesn’t mean they’re going to stay. Unfortunately, our lives revolve around the almighty dollar,” said Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio. “But the homegrown is obviously a benefit because they know the county. They’re not trying to learn the roadways. They have roots here. They have family here.”

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office employs 54 sworn deputies with an array of investigators, marijuana enforcement team members and lake patrolmen.

About 20 deputies are designated to street patrol, “which is low,” DiBasilio said, adding that about 28 deputies are needed to “run things the way they should.”

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office has five vacant positions, he said, with four people set to enroll in a peace officer academy.

But with “an array of scenarios that would make our people leave,” any increases to the staff are usually undermined by the departure of deputies to cities and counties promising better pay, DiBasilio said.

“We lose a lot of people to the cities,” he said, noting that the sheriff’s union is currently in negotiations to increase the pay schedule to incentivize new recruits. “We want people to come to the smaller counties, smaller areas.”

By comparison, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office has been able to overcome the “struggle” of understaffing and maintain a near-full staff with just one vacancy, said Undersheriff Bill Pooley.

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office employs 63 sworn deputies with about 33 deputies designated for patrol, he said.

Pooley credited the maintenance of a near-full staff not to the hiring of all “local folks,” but rather to young deputies committed to developing and maintaining a career.

“I think our biggest thing is we need to hire people with strength and character,” he said.”If they are smart, can think on their feet, and have good moral character we can train them to be the deputy they want to be.”

About 75 to 80 percent of deputies have under five years experience in law enforcement, he said, with the majority hired directly after their completion of an academy.

In total, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office employs about the same number of deputies as in 1997, he said, while calls for service have increased by more than 250 percent, from 17,941 calls to 47,316 calls during the same time period.

“There’s only so much money to go around. We can’t just continually go around and ask for more deputies, but I think the need is there,” he said. “Our workload has increased dramatically. I think that the community expects a higher level of service of law enforcement now than they did in 1997. I think they call us for wider range of problems.”

Angels Camp Chief of Police Todd Fordahl was unavailable for comment.

The process of recruitment

Budrow first applied to the Sonora Police Department in April 2016 and enrolled in the Academy in May 2017. She was hired in November.

VanderWiel said the testing process for applications begins with a written test, then an oral interview by selected city representatives. The highest-scoring applicants then undergo another oral interview with department representatives.

After it is decided who will move forward, a background investigation is conducted internally to confirm a person has a clean record and “no disqualifying information,” he said.

From there, a medical and psychological examination is made of the recruit, and only then can they apply to the next available Police Officer Standards and Training academy, which usually lasts about 6 months.

Budrow characterized the academy as an “intense” boot camp for the first couple of weeks, but noted that education is the more serious focus of the training.

After the completion of the academy, field training is conducted before an officer is fully inducted into the department.

Sheriff’s offices in both counties engage in similar hiring procedures, with Pooley estimating about a year-long process for the hiring of deputies. That time can be reduced, he added, when the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office makes “lateral hires” of individuals with previous law enforcement experience who have already been through an academy.

DiBasilio’s estimate was wider, almost 20 to 24 months, he said, from the beginning of the hiring process to working as a solo deputy in the field. DiBasilio highlighted the extensive, time-consuming background check and a more than four-month field training program as reasons for the estimate.

Solutions and the “revolving door”

Di Basilio said the challenge for the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office is to maintain an adequate amount of staffing to meet the obligations and responsibilities of the community.

But fiscal constraints will always beget what DiBasilio characterized as “the revolving door” — an increase in deputies requires costly staffing increases elsewhere in the department.

“As the county gets bigger and more things go on, we get more calls,” he said, which requires more dispatch employees to answer the phones.

“That’s the revolving door,” he said. “If I put more cops on the streets to handle the calls, I need more people in the jail to handle the bad guys.”

It’s a balancing act, he said, to remain within budget but also have deputies be consistently present throughout the county.

“More of a presence is going to deter more crime,” he said.

A lack of law enforcement officers can also extend response time to emergencies, VanderWiel said, especially when backup units aren’t available for calls high-danger calls.

The Sonora Police Department, on average, receives about 700 calls a month.

“The difficulty for us is we still have to cover the streets and we still try to keep more than one officer on at a time,” VanderWiel said. “They’ve been working hard to stay on top of things.”

But the bane of increased call volume has been eased slightly by technology, such as computers in vehicles, Pooley said, adding that that trend could soon be overcome by a sheer lack of available manpower.

“Those types of things make our deputies more efficient so we can handle more calls, but, at this rate, if it continues to go up I don’t know what other technologies we can grab hold of,” he said.

Near-maximum staffing still has its advantages however, he added, saying it “cuts down on our overtime” and allows for a “more proactive approach to reducing crime instead of being reactive.”

Each of the Mother Lode law enforcement agencies function with a rotating cast of employees. Staffing fluctuates by year, and even by month, representatives say.

Budrow is now in the onset of her career and, she said, in her first six days of field training, many of the calls have focused on mental health issues and addressing the needs of disadvantaged individuals throughout Sonora. But if her past occupations have given her a lesson, it is that now she may have found a stable and permanent career.

“I just want to help people that need it, that’s it,” she said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com .