by Brad Butterfield
Four officers provide 24/7 emergency response to over 6,000 students and faculty at Cal Poly Humboldt. While patrolling the campus grounds Feb. 2, Sergeant Andy Martin detailed how staffing shortages have stretched the force thin.
“If we stay short-handed, something has to give somewhere, and it might be the quality of our calls,” Martin said.
Dispatchers are working twelve hour shifts for weeks on end. Officers are forced to respond to calls without backup, on top of running a part-time shuttle service. Compounding these issues, the UPD does not have a police chief.
“We want to be that community-based police department. We work really hard to achieve that,” Martin said.
Staffing issues have not only made the job more difficult, but also needlessly more dangerous.
“There was a call I went on last year, where a transient was on campus with a knife, which is a felony level crime. Arcata [Police Department] couldn’t send anybody because they were caught up and I was here by myself,” Martin said.
Another time, the sergeant responded to an alleged domestic violence dispute. Martin was the only officer on campus that day.
“It’s very hard to detain two people by yourself,” he said. “We have agreements with the CSU that minimal standards are generally considered two officers on at all times, 24/7. But we’ve been short officers for so long. Now we have just single officers at a time.”
The satellite properties around Humboldt County that the university now owns are also patrolled by the UPD.
“Our expanded footprint is quickly becoming an issue,” Martin said. “I am the only officer working right now. So, if I’m here checking on this property, then I am not on campus.”
The university’s “bridge” housing system presents a transportation problem to a university that is already struggling to meet current students’ needs. The UPD has been acting as a shuttle service for the students housed three miles north of campus in the Comfort Inn.
“Yesterday I transported four students myself. Someones gotta do it,” Martin said. “It goes back to staffing issues. Everybody is left scrambling. We don’t want it to be any of our students that are suffering because of it.”
Inside the campus police station, dispatcher Jennifer Gomes sits at the helm, facing an extensive assemblage of screens. Gomes revealed the consequences of an understaffed dispatch center.
“This is my 18th day in a row, 12 hour shifts,” Gomes said. “I love it, though. I love the unknown.”
Gomes said that positive work culture at the station is one of the reasons she has stuck around.
Without a police chief, UPD’s single lieutenant is forced to fill the role in the interim. The strain of absent leadership is dispersed through the entire force.
The UPD says they’re working to fill the position as quickly as possible, but it is a multi-stage hiring process with many potential delays. In addition to background checks, medical tests, polygraph tests, and a psychological evaluation, there is also an eclectic group of community members that candidates for chief must interview with.
Candidates go through the committee process, speaking with two people from the police department, along with representatives from the leadership team, athletics, resident managements, students, and the chief of the Arcata Police Department.
“[It’s] a whole collection of people that provide feedback and opinions on how the candidate did,” said Martin.
Ultimately, the decision is made by the University president and vice president. Candidate Kevin H. Williams recently answered questions at a search committee led forum on March 2nd. Still, it is anyone’s guess when CPH will again have a police chief.
“The hiring of any police officer usually takes many, many months,” Martin said. “Maybe they’ll start soon. We never know.”
Martin says that the nationwide law enforcement hiring crisis has made the UPD unrecognizable from when he first started.
“When I applied here eleven years ago, there was an excess of like thirty applicants, because this used to be the place to come,” he said. “The equipment was solid, you’d be working with a solid team, it was community-based policing at its finest. It was what a police department should, and could, look like.”
There are currently only four new applicants for police officer. The required background checks, medical and psychological examinations, and polygraph testing, on top of the training itself, mean that these potential new officers are still months out from serving the Cal Poly Humboldt community.
“Before I get those applicants on the street, I’ll probably lose another officer,” said Martin. “Redding is offering a $50,000 signing bonus. How do you compete with that?”