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Calif. sheriff directed to spend $11+ million on signing bonuses, bilingual staff

The board of supervisors wants to speed the process of filling more than 350 vacancies for deputies, nurses and mental health clinicians

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The plan also calls for upgrading body scanners to reduce the volume of illegal drugs being brought into San Diego County jails.

San Diego County Sheriff

By Jeff McDonald
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Continuing deaths inside San Diego County jails prompted the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to direct its top administrator to work with the Sheriff’s Department to protect people in custody and to raise pay incentives to fill open positions.

The proposal, brought forward by Chairman Nathan Fletcher after a rash of 15 in-custody deaths so far this year, is designed to push Sheriff Anthony Ray to do more to keep incarcerated people safe.

Under the plan, which was adopted unanimously, the Sheriff’s Department will spend more than $11 million on signing bonuses, night differentials, extra pay for bilingual staff and other tools aimed at finding and keeping employees.

It also calls for investing $200,000 to upgrade body scanners to try to reduce the volume of illegal drugs being brought into jails by people being booked into custody.

Accidental overdoses have plagued the jail system in recent years, adding to the number of medical emergencies and deaths.

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“This is not one and done,” Supervisor Jim Desmond said before casting his vote in favor of the incentive package. “If you’ve got more ideas on retention and recruitment, bring them forward.”

The measure, which aims to speed the filling of more than 350 vacancies through bonuses of up to $20,000 for new hires from other police agencies, represented something of an intervention by county supervisors.

The board generally leaves Sheriff’s Department administration and policymaking to the elected sheriff.

But the recent spate of in-custody deaths — five were recorded last month alone — prompted the board to direct Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to work with Sheriff Anthony Ray to boost pay incentives and improve body scanning.

The spending will not come via a new allocation from the Board of Supervisors.

Instead, the compensation package was negotiated with the Sheriff’s Department and will be paid for with funds that already were included in the $1 billion adopted budget.

During his presentation to the board, Ray took the opportunity to invite people to apply to his department and cited the recruitment website.

“For anyone out there watching online who wants a job, log on right now to,” he said. “We’d like to talk to you.”

The Board of Supervisors twice in recent years has boosted staffing and spending across the Sheriff’s Department, in an attempt to reduce mandatory overtime and add more healthcare providers to county jails.

But the department has been slow to fill the positions and continues to lose people to other jobs.

Desmond and Supervisor Joel Anderson issued a joint statement after the vote noting that employment applications to the Sheriff’s Department had sunk by 25 percent over the past year.

According to the sheriff’s jobs website, a detentions nurse can earn up to $122,000 a year; a deputy may collect up to $112,000 a year, and a licensed mental health clinician can be paid up to $106,000 annually.

The improved scanning system is designed to reduce the volume of drugs smuggled into the jails by people being booked. But two supervisors raised questions about whether the sheriff should also check employees on their way into work to make sure they are not smuggling drugs into jails.

Anderson also noted that he is body-scanned every time he passes through security at an airport. “Why don’t we have the same standard in the jails?” he asked.

Ray said research has shown that most of the drugs are brought in during the booking process or through the mail.

“We investigate every allegation” of staff smuggling contraband into county jails, he said. “In five years we have found no proof, no evidence and no cases sustained of any (employees) bringing drugs in.”

Supervisor Nora Vargas said the department should look at using drug-sniffing dogs at staff entrances to the jails. Fletcher said that issue and others could be considered following a 60-day review of the project later this year.

“An update on this would be appropriate,” he said.

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This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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