Laguna Beach police offer hiring bonuses, short-term overtime bump amid staffing gap

Laguna Beach police officers speak to a man wearing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection badge on May 18, 2022. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Laguna Beach Police Department will join the numerous law enforcement agencies across the nation offering bonuses to new employees, following an uptick in on-duty injuries and employees poached by other agencies.

Police officers and dispatchers who jump ship to Laguna Beach by Dec. 31 will receive a one-time $15,000 bonus. They’ll receive $7,500 upon getting hired and $7,500 after staying with the City for 24 months.

Current police employees who successfully refer a candidate will receive a $1,000 bonus upon hiring and another $1,000 after the employee completes 12 months of service.

The City Council unanimously approved these bonuses as part of a deal with the Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association on Tuesday.

“Police agencies across Orange County and the nation are struggling to attract and retain officers due to the changing business and political environment,” Police Chief Jeff Calvert said Tuesday. “The pool of qualified officers has decreased due to mass resignations and retirements from the anti-police and ‘defund the police’ movements, changes in legislation that have placed more pressure and scrutiny on officers, and the unprecedented increase in inflation.”

The City Council has approved a budget for 55 sworn officers and 11 dispatchers. When Calvert took the agency’s helm in May 2021, there were 45 officers and nine dispatchers available to work, according to a staff report.

As of Aug. 2, there are 43 officers in Laguna Beach’s ranks who have graduated from a police academy and are available to work without a supervisor. Seven dispatchers are cleared to work without supervision. Three dispatchers are in training, Calvert said.

After the Independent went to press, a knowledgeable police source clarified the department currently has one trainee dispatcher.

“We’ve also had significant turnover in dispatchers in the communications center due to personnel moving out of state or not being able to pass training,” Calvert said.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Jeff Calvert with Julie Laughton, chairwoman elect of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, during the State of the City luncheon at the Montage Laguna Beach in March. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

To compensate current employees tasked with extra hours through the end of September, the City will pay double-time pay to officers, corporals, sergeants, dispatchers, and senior dispatchers, according to the City’s side letter of agreement with the police union.

City staffers projected these new recruitment and overtime programs will cost $100,000 from the department’s overtime budget and General Fund Contingency.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen thanked the police union, Calvert, and City Manager Shohreh Dupuis for coming together so quickly on an interim deal.

“Hopefully this will alleviate things then obviously we’ve got some more time to consider more permanent solutions as we enter into negotiations,” he said.

In addition to the injuries, three front-line officers departed Laguna Beach after being recruited by other agencies over the last year.

As part of a neighborhood and environmental improvement plan, the City Council authorized new parking revenue to be spent on park rangers to patrol neighborhoods, trailheads, and open spaces for illegal behavior. The City has hired two park rangers—one has nearly completed training and other is about to start—and plans to onboard a new full-time park ranger in late August, Calvert said.

Police leaders expect these new positions will free up patrol officers for other police work.

Since the pandemic’s start, law enforcement agencies across the country have experienced early retirements linked to burnout.

Law enforcement officers lived with mental health problems at a rate greater than the general public before the challenges, stress, and uncertainty created by the pandemic, according to criminal justice researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Clemson University.

Councilmember Toni Iseman said she supported the bonuses and added overtime costs but questioned senior staff on why the City Council wasn’t notified of the police staffing issues months ago.

“I don’t begrudge any money that we spend with our police and fire but I am concerned that we are putting them in a place where they have to work overtime and, as I understand, sometimes they’re required to work overtime. And a good way to get in trouble is to work beyond your comfort and capacity,” Iseman said.

Councilmember George Weiss asked if there are any plans for additional programs to retain qualified officers and make sure they don’t depart for other agencies.

“I think that needs to be part of the negotiations. I don’t think we want to be discussing that right now,” City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said.

The Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association shared its gratitude for city leaders’ quick execution of the temporary overtime hike and bonuses.

“The PEA supports the agenda bill approved by the Council as a short-term response to our staffing issues. We look forward to negotiations and working with City staff to identify meaningful and long-term measures to retain our current officers while attracting skilled and experienced officers to join us,” the Association’s Board of Directors said in a statement.

Calvert reassured councilmembers that standards required of job candidates will not be lowered under his command.

“I want to be clear though that although we’re facing challenges, morale is high and the outstanding men and women of this police department are fully committed to the safety of this community,” Calvert said.

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