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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Blue Line Grows Thin

Overtime Taxes Sheriff's Deputies as Positions Remain Unfilled

November 23, 1998|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deputy Jason Cantrall is tired.

Last week, he pulled two extra 12-hour shifts at the Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula. Not that that's unusual.

After three years with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, Cantrall, 28, is called on weekly to fill an extra shift here, work additional hours there. The total last month: 120 hours.

"Sometimes it starts wearing on you," Cantrall said. "You really start to feel it at the end of your shift. By the time you get home, you just go, 'Aaahhhh.' You just sit on the couch and you just don't want to get up."

Over the past four years, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department has experienced unprecedented growth. The department has grown so fast, in fact, that those in charge of hiring have been unable to keep up. At the moment, the department is down 45 sheriff's deputy positions, 8% of the force.

The result is lots of overtime--and lots of exhausted deputies. Last month, patrol officers in Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and the unincorporated east county pulled more than 3,000 hours of overtime--nearly double the usual amount, said Capt. Frank O'Hanlon, who is in charge of administrative services.

"If we continue at this level, we are going to experience some burnout," O'Hanlon said.

After years of funding cutbacks, department officials saw the trend reverse when voters in 1993 approved Proposition 172, a half-cent sales tax to help cover public safety expenses. A windfall of cash followed--about $30 million a year. With the money in hand, department officials beefed up their ranks: Nighttime patrol units went from one deputy to two; 50 previously cut sworn positions were reinstated; eight previously slashed court security positions were renewed.

Then, in 1995, the Todd Road Jail opened in Santa Paula, creating a demand for 47 more men and women to don a sheriff's deputy badge. In all, the department added 126 badge-wearing positions.

"And that's on top of the people we've lost because they retired or left the department," said Capt. Keith Parks, Sheriff's Department spokesman. "That's a lot of people."

The situation has kept personnel officials scrambling.

"I always like a challenge," said Kelly Shirk, personnel analyst for the Sheriff's Department. "I don't like to twiddle my thumbs, anyway, and the Sheriff's Department has kept that from happening."

Unlike neighboring Los Angeles County, where the $337-million Twin Towers jail built in 1995 sat unopened for 16 months because of a lack of funds to hire deputies to staff it, money is not the problem in Ventura County. The problem is finding the bodies.

One of the four housing units at Todd Road sits unopened, awaiting the new hires. Although it's not a critical problem yet, it will be once the Ojai Honor Farm becomes an all-female jail in June and about 114 male inmates are transferred to Todd Road, said Cmdr. David Tennessen, who oversees the county's jails.

Partly to blame, authorities say, is a booming job market. Shirk notes more jobs are available, and young people tend to look elsewhere before considering a job that means carrying a gun and confronting criminals.

"Think about it," Shirk said. "This is a job where there is a possibility you will be shot at. Not a lot of people are attracted to that."

Recruiters--who search for candidates through job fairs and want ads--emphasize the job's attractions: a starting salary of $34,500, good benefits and no college-education requirement.

But a rigorous application process also turns away many who show interest.

"You hand someone a 27-page background report, and see what happens," Shirk said. "It's intimidating."

Applicants must pass a written exam, a physical agility test, a background check, a psychological exam (written and oral) and a polygraph test. If they succeed, they get an invitation to attend the academy--24 rigorous weeks of learning penal codes and police tactics, and doing extensive physical training.

Only about 10% of those who apply end up wearing the tan and green uniforms, Shirk said.

The process is also time-consuming. It may be several weeks, even months, between the time someone applies and the beginning of an academy class. From start to finish, the process takes about a year. Most job seekers aren't willing to wait that long for a paycheck to roll in, recruiters say.

Some relief for Cantrall and other overworked deputies is on the way.

On Dec. 18, the second academy class of the year graduates, said Tennessen. As commander of the county's jails, Tennessen hopes the 17 new graduates will relieve his overburdened staff at the Todd Road Jail.

"Everybody is yammering for them," he said about commanders in other Sheriff's Department branches. "But they have to rotate through the jail first; that's the way it works."

Even the additional deputies, however, will just offset vacancies created by retirements and resignations.

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