Police, fire staffing levels bounce back after Omicron sidelines personnel; hiring remains an issue
Officials with the city’s fire and police departments said this week they are hopeful the worst is over when it comes to additional staff shortages brought on by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
Speaking Tuesday at a meeting of Downtown business owners, Sgt. Frank Guarino of the Palm Springs Police Department and Capt. Nathan Gunkel of the Palm Springs Fire Department said the Omicron variant that caused a surge of COVID cases throughout the nation hit their departments particularly hard. Approximately three dozen police officers and firefighter/paramedic personnel were quarantined a week ago. As of this week, that number is down to four.
Across other city departments, as many as 50 employees at any given time have been out in recent weeks as they quarantine, Communications Director Amy Blaisdell said Thursday. Last month, the city closed its buildings to foot traffic. The Swim Center has been forced to close twice during that same period.
Blaisdell said that a Dec. 1 deadline for all city employees to show proof of vaccination had been extended, adding that a verification program should be in place by the end of this month.
“We do know that at least 50%, at a minimum, are fully vaccinated, but that number continues to rise as we verify vaccination status as part of our policy roll out,” Blaisdell wrote in an email. “…We are continuing to meet and confer with our associations and will have a program ready to implement by the end of February.”
For department heads who manage the men and women providing emergency services in the city, the increased presence of COVID could not have come at a worse moment. They are currently working to fill nearly two dozen openings in the police and fire departments and have 19 people out on long-term disability.
“We’re at our lowest with COVID in terms of people being out,” said Gunkel. “We only have one employee out now. Last week we had 12 or 13. But with the staff shortages already impacting us, we were down 40 to 50 percent of our staff. We had some people on shift 120 straight hours.”
In the case of the police department, being short-staffed has not affected individual shifts. Those continue to be filled, albeit minimally. But the lack of extra available officers that can be deployed to any one area or situation has led to increased frustration in the community. Business owners and residents have noted an increase in response times and claim sometimes there is no response at all.
Issues with crime, drug use, and vagrancy continue to be particularly alarming in Downtown Palm Springs, where the actions of some unhoused residents led to a community meeting and pleas from residents and business owners for increased action late last year.
“We keep seeing reports about their rights,” said Kristen Eldar, a South Palm Canyon Drive business owner who spoke during a Main Street Palm Springs meeting this week. “I hope the business owners and the public have rights as well.”
Capt. Mike Kovaleff, who oversees the officers on the street, frequently addresses exasperated residents and business owners. He did so again Tuesday, saying that while some laws do protect those who live on city streets, police can’t make an arrest if they don’t catch somebody in the act of committing a crime. With fewer police on patrol, he said, the chances of officers witnessing a crime decreases.
“I share the frustrations,” he told Eldar. “The reality of it is we need staffing. We need more cops. We’re running into gigantic hurdles hiring people.
“A quarter of my department is down. We can talk about laws. We can talk about all these different things. But if we don’t have the staffing to go out and address these issues, that’s what we have to overcome.”
Filling the police department’s openings has been an ongoing struggle for months. The city has even offered a $30,000 hiring bonus for officers willing to transfer to the city from other departments. That offer, as well as other recruitments efforts, appear to be paying off. Guarino said there are currently five “lateral officers” going through background checks and four more potential officers scheduled to attend the police training academy.
Lack of interest in police service is not unique to Palm Springs. There are hundreds of openings posted on the state’s law enforcement job board with departments in every corner of California.
“We’re seeing fewer individuals, particularly really strong, talented people who are willing to get into the profession,” said Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton. “We’re not going to solve this unless we get the highest quality of individuals working in our police department.”
That may take even more time, Middleton said, due to the fact, “We’re not just taking anyone onto this force. And that makes a difference in what you see each and every day.”
ARRESTS MADE: Palm Springs police are reporting the arrest of two suspects in separate incidents involving gunfire. In one incident, a 22-year-old Palm Springs man who was was arrested Tuesday pleaded not guilty Thursday to two felony counts of battery, along with one felony count each of attempted murder, assault with a gun, burglary, vandalism, resisting arrest and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. His arrest followed an investigation by police into an attempted homicide and burglary and a separate instance of a fight that broke out less than a mile away in the city on Jan. 13. The suspect remains held on $1 million bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning. In the second incident, a 26-year-old Desert Hot Springs resident was arrested Wednesday and faces charges of assault with a deadly weapon and shooting at an uninhabited building. Police say the suspect is believed to be the person who fired shots in a downtown parking structure on Jan. 29 around 2 a.m. A vehicle in the parking lot was struck by a bullet during the incident. The shots were heard by nearby police officers who were patrolling during the time Downtown bars were closing. Investigators were able to sift through video surveillance and conduct additional follow-up that helped them identity the suspected shooter. He was taken into custody without incident at his home and has been booked into Larson Justice Center in Indio.
GALA TICKETS: Tickets are on sale now for the Palm Springs Black History Committee’s annual Black History Awards Gala, to be held at the Hilton Ballroom, 400 East Tahquitz Canyon Way, Saturday evening. The gala is the committee’s way of recognizing individuals, groups, and local and corporate businesses contributing to the success and achievements of African Americans and our society. This year’s event begins at 5 p.m. with a silent auction and cocktail hour. Tickets start at $75 and can be purchased at this site.
ROAD CLOSURE: One of the main corridors used by travelers from the Coachella Valley to Moreno Valley will be closed this weekend starting this evening at 10 p.m. The 60 freeway, which runs from Interstate 10 in Beaumont to Moreno Valley via a winding, hilly stretch known as the Badlands, will see a full closure of the westbound lanes as crews work to pour concrete as part of a widening of the roadway expected to be completed this summer. The stretch of road being worked on this weekend is expected to fully open at 5 a.m. Monday. The eastbound lanes through the area will be open during the weekend, but drivers can expect alternating single lane closures.
THREE WEEKENDS FOR SPLASH HOUSE: Popular Palm Springs music festival Splash House is set to return this summer for three weekends, it was announced Thursday. The festival will be held from June 10-12, Aug. 12-15, and Aug. 19-21 at hotels across Palm Springs including the Renaissance, the Margaritaville Resort, and the Saguaro, with after-hours parties at the Palm Springs Air Museum. This year will be the first time the festival will run three weekends as opposed to its typical two-weekend run. Pre-sale tickets for the event will be available on Feb. 10 at noon, but no lineup for the event has been released.
MIZELL CENTER: The Mizell Center, 480 South Sunrise Way, offers 11 classes and programs today, starting at 8 a.m. You can find a complete list of all today’s classes online here.
SUNSHINE SISTERS: The Palm Springs Sunshine Sisters will meet for a fitness walk in South Palm Springs at 8:30 a.m. You can sign up to be part of the group — formed to help women make new connections and friendships — on Meetup here.
ART EXHIBIT: The Desert Art Center in Palm Springs opens one of the largest shows of the season today with all new works from gallery artists plus an art pop-up in the Studio Gallery. Every art lover is welcome to join from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. for both art viewing and refreshments. DAC is located at 550 North Palm Canyon Dr. in Uptown Palm Springs.
DANCE STUDIO BENEFIT: Dance With Miss Lindsay Dance Studio in Palm Springs has pledged to support the Andréa Rizzo Foundation’s nationwide fundraising effort “Dance Across America” for the seventh year. Dancers at the studio will be holding a dance party today from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the studio. Anyone wishing to make a pledge to the event is invited to call Lindsay Kaufmann at 760-413-6931 or email her at [email protected].
EQUITY CONFERENCE: Palm Springs Unified School District (PSUSD) is hosting its second Equity Community Conference on Saturday, starting at 9 a.m. The event is virtual. Multiple speakers will appear during the event, addressing the audience on topics ranging from Native American visibility in schools to the myths surrounding Black masculinity. The keynote speaker is Dr. Abdul-Malik Muhammad, president and founding team leader of Akoben LLC. Those interested in attending the conference can register here.
FARMERS’ MARKET: The Palm Springs Certified Farmers’ Market is held at 2300 E. Baristo Rd. (adjacent to The Camelot Theatres) from 8:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. All Certified Farmers’ Markets offer a $15/$15 match to customers participating in CalFresh EBT and a $10/$10 match for WIC, SSDI, and federal unemployment. Find more details about all three Coachella Valley Certified Farmers’ Markets here.
FOOD DISTRIBUTION: Well in the Desert distributes food every Saturday at 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. at 181 N. Indian Canyon Dr. For the early distribution, guests typically begin lining up at 5 a.m. and must show proof of residency. Guests are asked to bring a box, bags, or other containers to transport food items for both distributions. More information is available by phoning the Well’s office at 760-656-8905.
FLEA MARKET: A flea market and food fest are held Saturdays at 675 Crossley Rd. from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. Information can be found here.
GENEAOLOGICAL SOCIETY: “Making YDNA and mtDNA Part of Your Family History” is the topic of a Saturday virtual meeting of the Palm Springs Genealogical Society that starts at 9:30 a.m. Diana Southard will discuss how YDNA and mtDNA are often overlooked in the autosomal-centered industry and you will learn how both of these tests can enliven your family history research. For complete information on how to join the meeting, email Sondra Lucas at [email protected].
SUNSHINE SISTERS: The Palm Springs Sunshine Sisters will meet for brunch at 849 on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. They plan on attending a polo match on Sunday at 11 a.m., followed by karaoke at 4 p.m. at the Agua Caliente Casino in Cathedral City. You can sign up to be part of the group — formed to help women make new connections and friendships — on Meetup here.
VINTAGE MARKET: The monthly Palm Springs Vintage Market will be held Sunday at the Palm Springs Cultural Center parking lot,
2300 East Baristo Rd. General admission is $5 and starts at 8 a.m., but you can be an early bird at 7 a.m. for $10. Sunday’s market is the first of two this month. The second will coincide with Modernism Week on Sunday Feb. 20. The market features the greatest collection of vintage furniture, clothing, décor, and other collectibles in the Coachella Valley.