Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office Faces ‘Existential Threat’ over Staffing Shortage

County Supervisors and Sheriff Butt Heads over Runaway Overtime Costs, Departmental Burnout, and Ongoing Recruiting Shortfalls

Supervisor Gregg Hart (left) accused Sheriff Bill Brown of continuing to do the same things that haven’t worked for the past five years to deal with issues stemming from the Sheriff’s Office’s staffing shortage. “I’m not getting a sense of urgency,” Hart said. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The perpetually left-footed dance between Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown and the county Board of Supervisors proceeded apace last Tuesday, October 18, over runaway overtime costs, an epidemic of departmental burnout, and ongoing recruiting shortfalls.

Most of the supervisors delicately pushed, prodded, and all but tried to bribe Brown into trying something new and different to address what Supervisor Das Williams described as the “existential threat” the staffing shortage poses to the department. 

Supervisor Gregg Hart was less temperate, accusing Brown of continuing to do the same things that haven’t worked for the past five years. “I’m not getting a sense of urgency,” a visibly frustrated Hart exclaimed after Brown explained what steps he intended to take.

During his remarks, Brown sought to ground the supervisors with how he perceived the reality of the situation. Yes, he said, the problems of turnover and vacancies are worse than they’ve ever been. But, he added, the problem is statewide and national in scope and his department is doing much better than other law enforcement agencies in the county. 

“There is no magic wand to wave,” Brown said at one point. At another, he added, “There is no silver bullet.”

Part of the problem between Brown and the supervisors is that he — as an independently elected official — calls the shots for how his department and his jail are run; the supervisors, however, are on the hook to pay for those costs whether or not they think Brown is doing a good job managing his department. Increasingly, they — both law-and-order conservatives as well as criminal justice reformers — do not, and their frustrations are becoming increasingly palpable.

Last Tuesday’s meeting was the equivalent of a fiscal intervention initiated by County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato, whose bean counters have grown exhausted trying to figure out — year after year — just how high the Sheriff’s Office’s overtime costs would be. For the past five years, such costs have averaged $9.7 million. This year, overtime costs “are trending” toward $17 million. (It should be noted that the net cost to the county is considerably less because of the savings accrued from not filling positions.)

Brown doesn’t deny there’s a problem with recruiting and retention, but mostly he blamed it on the “false narrative” that all law enforcement officers were racists, a narrative that’s sprung up throughout the nation in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Where he used to get 500 applicants every time his department held a hiring exam, today, he’s lucky to get 50. Of those, he cautioned, only 1-2 percent make it out at the end of all the tests and evaluations and other processes to evaluate whether a candidate would make a good sheriff’s deputy.

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Compounding matters, Santa Barbara’s notoriously high cost of housing has only gotten higher and more notorious. COVID and its related stresses also made a bad situation even worse for the department. Even so, Brown expressed reluctance to offer the $20,000 signing bonuses that other departments do; those, he said, he has reserved for high-level managers and senior-level detectives. Such bonuses, he added, don’t always sit well with departmental veterans. Other departments reportedly offer retention bonuses, relocation stipends, and educational benefits. This reluctance, in turn, did not sit well with the supervisors.  

The good news, according to Brown, is that the department’s vacancy rate is only 10 percent compared to the 20-25 percent for other departments in the county. The bad news is that 10 percent reflects 46 unfilled budgeted positions; typically, that number has averaged 36 for the past five years. 

Miyasato and her number crunchers have long wanted high-resolution, granular data that they believe will help them get a better grasp on what’s driving overtime costs. That way, they think, they might be able to control them. Thus far, Brown and his team have either been unwilling or unable to provide such data. And the number crunchers he recently hired for just this purpose, he said, have only just gotten started. 

A consultant hired by the county has similarly suggested that if Brown changed how he deployed his deputies — with the highest number deployed when most crimes are reported — they could reduce hours worked by 10 percent without any reduction in the service provided. During the recent election, Brown balked at this suggestion, commenting that law enforcement was not malleable to the same management practices that the “making of widgets” are. 

Likewise, Brown balked at the suggestion — from yet another consultant — that the jail population could be reduced by 250 inmates without compromising public safety. Ninety percent of the inmates, Brown noted, are incarcerated on felony charges. Not long ago, he said, only half were. Even so, he said, 91 inmates incompetent to stand trial were release during a 59-day period. Brown said that the jail has created its own competency restoration program inside the county jail because it takes so much longer to get inmates into Patton, a state psychiatric hospital for those facing serious criminal charges. He added that the jail’s restoration program takes roughly half as much time as it does in Patton. 

Philosophically, Brown stressed that he supports second chances, but insisted that people must be held accountable when they break the law.

Fueling the supervisors’ agitation was not merely the large numbers they can expect to spend on unbudgeted overtime and numerous unfilled positions. Earlier this year, they’d been on the receiving end of a powerful letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, describing in excruciating detail the human toll taken on custody deputies in the county jail forced to work three to four shifts of mandatory overtime per two week pay period. That’s 11 12-hour days every two weeks, not including the two to three hours spent driving to and from the job. The letters — submitted when the union was in contract negotiations with county administrators — painted a disturbing picture of the impact of chronic burnout on first responders bestowed with life-and-death responsibilities. 

In the end, the supervisors agreed to budget six new Sheriff’s Service Technician positions — which are considerably cheaper because they are not sworn positions — to do work now done by sworn officers. In addition, the supervisors agreed to budget up to $2 million a year from a specific account to defray the expected but unpredictable overtime costs accrued to Brown’s department.

All of this, however, is contingent upon Brown filling the vacant positions the supervisors have already funded. Even if that happens, Brown said, the department will remain underfunded and under-positioned. He harks back to the staffing levels that prevailed in 2007 before the Great Recession as the gold standard for which to strive. Even the most ardent law-and-order supervisors see that as a pipe dream.

Correction: This story was updated on November 14, 2021, to make several corrections and add information about the county jail’s competency restoration program.

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