Two officer injuries and four open positions have left the Sonora Police Department short-staffed, so much so that Chief Turu VanderWiel is taking patrol shifts to assist in daily operations.
“When it kind of all hits at once it impacts us greatly, so we’re recovering from that right now,” VanderWiel said, noting that over the past year there were a handful of retirements and some officers transferring to different agencies.
“Many of our people are working overtime and extra shifts in order to make sure things are covered. We have not reduced our services at this point,” he said.
Relief for both the patrol and administrative staff was expected to come next year, with one Police Academy cadet expected to graduate from the San Joaquin Delta Police Academy in Stockton by February and two other entry-level applicants being evaluated for open positions.
“I’m looking forward to having a complete staff and it will definitely smooth out our operations. Any time we are able to do that, it reflects on better service to the community.”
The Sonora Police Department is authorized to employ 14 full-time sworn officers, which includes a chief, a lieutenant, two sergeants, and 10 peace officers.
Currently, the department does not have a lieutenant. Of the six peace officers on staff (which includes one part-time contract officer), two have been designated to “modified duty assignment,” or office work, due to injuries sustained on the job, VanderWiel said.
VanderWiel said he could not share the nature of the injuries because it was related to personnel issues, but said there was no date set for either of them to return to patrol duties.
“I have worked several shifts over the past two months to assist and support the patrol operations,” VanderWiel said. “Based on call volume I may leave the office anyway, but on a few occasions I have been filling a patrol shift to supplement the patrol.”
VanderWiel said the position of lieutenant was vacant for many years under former Chief Mark Stinson until he was promoted to the position about two and a half years ago. VanderWiel held the position of lieutenant while he served as acting chief of police for more than a year, beginning in May 2017. VanderWiel became the Chief on May 22.
But because the average number of calls for service has remained the same, VanderWiel added, the department has not had to reduce responses to the public.
Each month, the Sonora Police Department averages more than 1,000 total incidents, generated by both calls for service and officer initiated investigations.
In July 2018, the department dealt with 1,195 incidents generated from 640 calls for service and 555 officer initiated investigations, ranging from parking citations and animal calls to DUI arrests and domestic violence cases. In June, there were 1,137 incidents from 707 calls for service and 430 officer initiated investigations.
In July 2018, the department made a total of 79 arrests, nine for felonies and 70 for misdemeanors, compared to a total of 73 arrests, 15 for felonies and 15 for misdemeanors, in June. In July 2017, the department made 76 arrests, 11 for felonies and 65 for misdemeanors.
VanderWiel said August totals were still being prepared pending the submission of staff reports and would be turned into the City Administrator this week.
VanderWiel said it was more common for smaller police departments to be impacted by issues with staffing, but it was not uncommon for him to personally fill in the gaps in the patrol schedule to keep the department running smoothly.
In both lean times and others, VanderWiel said the department prioritizes patrol duties based on specific times of day and dates of the week. Weekend nights during the summer months, and year-round during the week between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. were generally the busiest times for calls for service, he said.
“We definitely focus on being better staffed during those times and hours,” he said, but noted that there were no times that the department did not have an officer on patrol.
VanderWiel said patrol officers had been required to take extra shifts and clock overtime hours to meet staffing obligations. The department was taking proactive steps to fill most of those vacancies, he said, beginning with the cadet currently undergoing Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) courses at the academy.
If the person completes the training, then the cadet will be assigned to a 14-week field training under the guidance of an officer, who will monitor and report to the chief on progress. After the field training is completed, then their progress will be evaluated and a determination will be made to graduate them from the program and assign them a shift as a solo officer, VanderWiel said.
Applications for a peace officer begin with a written test and oral interviews with city and department representatives. After a background check to determine the person has no criminal history or affiliations, a medical and psychological examination is made of the recruit.
The police academy boot camp then lasts about six months.
Two other positions that will be prospectively be filled at the Sonora Police Department also come from entry-level applicants that have completed POST training, but have not served as a peace officer in another department in California.
VanderWiel said he hopes to offer a job in the next couple weeks to an applicant who had completed the final stages of the pre-employment screening and tests.
The last position that is anticipated to be filled is the vets to cop officer, a position that is 75 percent funded by a state grant to hire a military veteran for up to 36 months. One recruit who started at the academy on July 1 was no longer enrolled, VanderWiel said, but a new candidate, also entry-level, was now in the background investigation phase of their pre employment screening.
Vanderwiel added that he hoped to finally fill the lieutenant position in the office when staffing issues have been dealt with.
“We are really looking forward to the stabilization in the command as well with a lieutenant. That will help greatly.”
One open position remains and VanderWiel said a couple people have tested for eligibility, but the department has not yet selected who will move forward.