Santa Barbara County Jail
Paul Wellman (file)

In response to chronic staffing shortages in the County Jail, Sheriff Bill Brown will declare a “mandatory overtime” policy for custody officers beginning April 11. At the budget workshop hearing slated that same day, Brown will be asking the county supervisors to approve funding authorization for 11 new sworn positions and 13 new non-sworn positions.

The union representing county deputy sheriffs and custody officers — the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (DSA) — issued a red-flag broadside last week, calling on the sheriff and county supervisors to work harder to keep existing deputies and to recruit new ones. They said the number of vacancies among custody officers increased from 10 to 15 in the month of March; Brown himself put that number closer to 18.

Because staffing levels dropped below minimal levels twice in the month of March, the North County booking station was shut down two times, each for 12 hours. During those times, patrol sergeant and DSA spokesperson Bruce McFarland said, North County individuals who would otherwise have been booked in Santa Maria had to be escorted to the South County jail. This, he said, took skilled law enforcement officers off the streets for three hours at a time, leaving the communities they served less protected. Brown also asked the supervisors for $950,000 to keep the booking station open this coming year.

McFarland said that forced overtime poses its own health and safety dangers. With forced overtime, deputies will find themselves working 10 12-hour shifts — totaling 120 hours — before getting a break, as opposed to the current 80-hour stretches. Brown expressed sympathy with the union, stating its concerns were “valid.” He expressed hope the county supervisors would restore funding to some of the 64 positions cut during the recession. McFarland speculated that heightened concern about inmates with mental-health issues might be exacerbating staffing problems.

Brown said the real problem was any health crisis that required custody officers to escort prisoners to the emergency room or the county’s psychiatric hospital. This takes staff out of the jail. Reforms designed to shift older, nonviolent felons out of state prisons and into county jails, Brown said, have increased the number of such trips his troops have to make.

The staffing problems dogging Brown are hardly unique to Santa Barbara County. As the economy has improved and news coverage of excessive force by police has increased, law enforcement agencies throughout California and the nation have struggled to maintain staffing. Brown blamed the “relentless and significantly misplaced criticism directed against all American peace officers for the misconduct of a few.”

But in Santa Barbara, sheriff’s deputies and custody officers have been working without a contract for over a year. The DSA has sought an 8 percent raise; management has offered considerably less. Efforts at mediation have failed, and both sides have retreated into what’s termed the “fact-finding mode.” Assuming impasse remains, the county supervisors will likely impose a new contract on the union, but that imposition would last only one year. The workshops later this month will offer a sneak preview of the high-stakes drama expected to play out early this summer, when the supervisors hammer out a new budget.


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