"My best friends are cops," said Steven Epperson. "We go and we fish, and we hike. We ride motorcycles together and I'm giving that up and it's difficult for me."
Epperson, a detective with the San Diego Police Department's domestic violence unit, has been with the department for 15 years, but in the next four weeks, he'll be wrapping up his cases and moving. Not far, though. He'll still be in San Diego, and he'll still be a detective, but the state of California will be paying his salary.
Epperson describes an understaffed police department barely able to keep up with the caseload. The stress level is ungodly, and the morale is through the floor, he said.
And with the recent increase in personal contributions he and other officers are being asked to pay into the city's pension fund, he's had enough. Together with his wife, who also works in the department, he estimates his family stands to lose $9,000 per year.
"I feel like the city just kicked police officers into the gutter and treated us like a junkyard dog," he said.
As a member of the board of directors for the San Diego Police Officers Association, the union representing cops, Epperson may have an interest in calling attention to the standoff between the union and City Hall. But his story is difficult to dismiss when so many others are following him out the door. Since July 1, the beginning of this fiscal year, 70 tenured officers have put in applications at different departments in the region, said Executive Assistant Police Chief Bill Mahue. Normally, an average of 15 officers make such lateral transfers per year.
Sacrificing seniority for pay, officers have applied to the El Cajon, Escondido, Carlsbad, La Mesa and Chula Vista police departments as well as the San Diego Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney's office, which recently hired six detectives. Mahue said the already-devastating number might actually be much higher than reported because only local departments have been examined.
"You start looking in the Riverside area, you might have another 70 applications up there," he said. "That could really kill us."
Bill Nemec, president of the Police Officers Association, the cops union, told CityBeat that a recruiter from the Riverside Sheriff's office has had her eye on San Diego officers and left materials at the POA office for anyone interested in moving north.
As of July 5, the Chula Vista Police Department had received 22 lateral applications. Of those, six were from San Diego.
Chula Vista Police Chief Rick Emerson said his department does not actively recruit San Diego officers. Though there are general recruitment efforts in the area, he said, the officers hoping to switch departments are coming on their own, and they're coming for the benefits.
Last week, the city of Chula Vista agreed to increase its officers' pay by 25 percent over the next five years.
"With the issues that are being faced by San Diego city employees, there are people looking elsewhere," Emerson said, noting that some have gone on ride-alongs with Chula Vista officers to get a feel for the city's organization.
"There has been significant interest," he said.
In May, the city of San Diego and the POA were unable to reach an agreement during contract negotiations and the city's last offer, including a wage freeze and a 3.2-percent increase in employee contributions to the pension fund, was imposed.
Mahue said San Diego's worsening financial problems can weigh heavily in an officer's decision on where to work because, salary aside, officers here end up with less money in their pockets than those just a few miles away.
"You go to some of these other departments and the city pays for everything; the officer doesn't have to pay anything," he said. "So even if the salary's the same, their take-home pay goes way up."
The amount cops will pay into the pension fund is estimated between $200 and $300 each month.
The police and the city won't be back at the bargaining table until next year and, in the meantime, the police will have to live with the current terms, unless the city decides to reconsider. And now that the exodus the POA predicted months ago has arrived, Nemec said, the union is waging a public-information campaign to pressure the City Council into a change.
"If [City Council members] hear the message enough, hopefully what they'll do is they'll say, "OK, we need to consider this as a priority because the citizens want it that way," Nemec said.
Councilmember Toni Atkins said public safety is a priority but the City Council was in a tight spot during labor negotiations and, had they made a special exception for police officers, "we'd never have gotten agreements at all.
"I did expect some fallout following the imposed labor agreement, but I didn't anticipate it would be this dire so quickly," Atkins wrote in an e-mail. "I don't have suggestions in the short term because I think it requires incentives--which we cannot afford.
"I think the Council needs to hear from the Police Chief and Asst. Chief Maheu based on how other cities might have handled similar situations--and we need to have a frank personnel discussion (maybe even [in] closed session) to discuss."
CityBeat attempted to reach several other City Council members, but those who were called were out of town during the current legislative recess and unavailable for comment. Meanwhile, the police force is already down 82 officers from its budgeted capacity. If the officers who've applied elsewhere leave San Diego, Mahue said, it would impact the department's ability to fight crime.
"At some point, you break the bank," Mahue said. "You can't answer radio calls; you can't respond to things that are taking place."
San Diego's ratio of officers to citizens is one of the lowest in the nation. This year, the department is budgeted for 2,102 officers, one less than last year, but only 2,020 cops are in the field. Though the department got a $24.6-million budget increase over last year, with funding to put 130 cadets through the academy, some worry that the cadets, like tenured officers, may be feeling enticed to move elsewhere.
Two cadets in this year's class, hired by the department and scheduled to begin the academy later this month, have already left to be trained by other departments after hearing about the city's contract developments with the union, Nemec said.
Recruits go through an 18-month process, including background checks, physicals, academy and field training, before they become full-fledged officers. The time-lag as well as the relative few that make it through background checks and physical and mental examinations-approximately one in 10-as well as limited room in the academy makes replacing experienced officers difficult, Mahue said.
And as some leave, work gets harder on those who stay. Epperson said that he has to skip lunch three out of the five days a week he works just to stay on top of his caseload.
"Here I'm in domestic violence, and we're working on a shoe-string staff level here. The system is breaking down around us," he said. "We're having our cops do much more than they ever have done in the past."
But despite feeling overworked and underpaid, Epperson said the decision to leave was still an emotional one.
"Am I happy to be leaving? I'm happy in one sense and I'm very sad in another sense," he said, "because I'm leaving my friends. I planted 15 years of my life right here.... But for the better of my family, I need to do it."