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.

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 earlier this week 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 quarantining 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.

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A Dec. 1 deadline for all city employees to show proof of vaccination has been extended, Blaisdell said, adding that a program for verification 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 — known as “lateral officers.” 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 go through 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.”

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