By Andrew Keatts.

The city of San Diego can’t hire police officers as fast as they are retiring or bolting for other departments.

City leaders tried to pay officers more to keep them from going to other departments. They inked a new five-year agreement with the city’s police union to make their wages more competitive.

It hasn’t solved the problem. Now, the union representing local officers wants the city to be able to rehire officers who have already retired in hopes it will slow the rate at which the city is losing veteran officers.

Meanwhile, a wave of potential retirements is on the way, and the department is looking for ways to avoid it.

One policy under consideration would have an ancillary benefit, too: It might allow Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman to extend her stay as the city’s top cop.

Zimmerman is in a city program – the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP – that lets employees technically retire and collect a pension but continue to work and earn a salary for five years. It requires participants, however, to stop working completely after five years.

That meant Zimmerman already had an expiration datewhen she was promoted to police chief: March 2018. She must leave the city by then.

But the San Diego Police Officers Association has a plan modeled on a law New Mexico’s Legislature is considering. It would let the city re-hire retired officers. They would get a pension and a paycheck, but unlike DROP, they wouldn’t accrue additional retirement benefits.

The hope is it will blunt the effect of a coming wave of retirements. That includes a large chunk of the force coming up on retirement age plus a smaller group, including Zimmerman, who will have no choice in the matter.

“This could be a possibility to stem the loss of senior officers from the department,” said Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association.

The plan is still in its early stages. Marvel said it’s been circulated within union ranks and he raised it to Zimmerman in meetings. He would still need to see whether the mayor and City Council would even approve it, and confer with the city’s retirement system, San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System, if it would even be legal.

Zimmerman said it’s something the city should look into.

“That’s interesting—I think that needs to be explored,” she said in an interview following a City Council committee hearing. “That’s not my comment, obviously. That’s not my comment. I’d like to know more about it – that could be my comment. I’d like to know more about it.”

A department spokesman didn’t respond to a question over whether Zimmerman would consider staying in her position beyond her mandated retirement deadline if the policy were adopted.

Zimmerman Not the Only One Leaving

The department’s been steadily losing officers for years. It’s been on a constant mission to replace officers as fast as they’re leaving.

During the first six months under the new police contract intended to address officer attrition, the city lost 13 officers a month – the same number it lost per month in the previous year.

Meanwhile, the city can’t hire and train officers fast enough to fill all the positions it has in its budget. The department has 224 vacant positions right now, and anticipates filling 78 percent of them by the end of the fiscal year.

But that assumes that no other officers leave in the meantime.

“We continue to hire, but we’re losing quicker than we can hire,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman acknowledged the department is losing the same number of officers every month as it was before it got a new contract, but said things would be even worse without the raise.

The last deal tried to make officer compensation more competitive with other agencies in the county by increasing holiday pay and lowering health insurance contributions. Since it went into effect, the department has lost two officers to other law enforcement agencies per month, same as the year earlier and more than two years ago.

Meanwhile, a wave of departures could be coming.

Three years ago, Zimmerman said as many as 919 officers, or half the police force, would become eligible to retire within four years. The union cited a similar number at the time.

Marvel said he hasn’t put together a recent accounting of officers eligible for retirement, approaching retirement eligibility or who are enrolled in DROP and have a firm retirement deadline.

But addressing that hoard of potential or guaranteed retirements, Marvel said, is where the potential to extend officers for two years after their retirement could help.

“The grand scheme is that people who want to stay get a chance to stay,” he said.

‘We Need Some Breathing Room’

Earlier this year, the New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill that caught the San Diego police union’s attention. It’s still trying to win approval in the state Senate.

If passed, the law would let departments re-hire officers for five years after their retirement. They would collect both a pension payment and a paycheck, but wouldn’t be able to accrue additional benefits even though they would continue to contribute to the pension fund.

It’s been a hotly debated issue in the state, kicking up old fights over double-dipping from the last 15 years.

Marvel said he’s reaching out to his colleagues in Albuquerque, who initiated the push for the law at the statehouse, to learn more about it and see if it would directly address San Diego’s attrition issues.

“We can’t recruit our way out of attrition,” he said. “We need some breathing room while we bring additional bodies in.”

The department’s current contract with the city runs through 2020, but Marvel said he hopes the provision could be adopted through a side agreement.

There are plenty of issues still to work through.

The City Attorney would need to weigh in on how many additional provisions could be added to the existing contract, Marvel said. And the city’s retirement system would need to weigh in on the item’s feasibility.

Adopting the policy could also require an amendment to the city’s municipal code. Currently, employees who collect a city pension can’t be re-hired by the city, except as provisional employees who work no more than 90 days a year. That restriction was put in place specifically to prevent double-dipping.

That restriction became a public issue in late 2012, when Mayor Bob Filner attempted to hire former City Councilwoman Donna Frye as his director of open government. Filner had asked the city to amend the law to allow for Frye’s hire, but she stepped down from the position for other reasons before that was necessary.

A city ordinance that mimicks the law making its way through New Mexico’s Legislature is still a ways off – Marvel said he hasn’t even brought it up in Council offices yet. And he said it’s really a long-term solution, one that would give the city a chance to more easily address attrition issues any time they arise.

But if it were to pass, it could mean that Zimmerman isn’t forced to retire in two years after all.

“That’s if we could even get it done in two years,” Marvel said. “A proposal like this would probably take two years to get something done.”