Contra Costa County sheriff's officials sounded the alarm Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors meeting, warning that deputy recruits are ditching the county at a rapid pace.
The county's supervisors heard from a working group organized to identify issues with recruitment and retention of sheriff's deputies. The group presented findings from a study that began in May.
Sheriff-Coroner David Livingston said the group uncovered a "very serious" situation, in which the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office was losing deputies not long after they complete an expensive training process.
He said about a third of recruits hired since May 2010 have left for other agencies, most within a year or two. Even since beginning the study in May, another 29 deputies have left, Livingston said.
Livingston said the deputies are often pursuing higher paying work at agencies such as BART, or city police departments such as Richmond and Antioch.
The sheriff's office provides services to Alamo and other unincorporated parts of the San Ramon Valley, and the town of Danville contracts with the sheriff's office for police services.
Livingston gave an anecdote Tuesday about a former deputy whose father was a longtime Richmond police officer. He left the sheriff's office in less than a year to pursue a career in Richmond, Livingston said.
The deputy had been rejected by Richmond police a year earlier, but was accepted after graduating from the county's academy.
Supervisor Karen Mitchoff chastised Richmond police chief Chris Magnus for allowing such conduct.
"If he's listening: That's not OK, Magnus," she said at the meeting.
The supervisors questioned whether the county should consider requiring a repayment of academy training costs in these cases.
Livingston believes such a requirement would only further reduce the amount of applicants to the sheriff's office. He pointed to data showing that applications have decreased 40% since the peak in 2012.
Only about half of applicants show up to take the written exam, he added.
Supervisors also examined whether the obligation that deputies serve 18 months as a custody officer was proving to be a deterrent, but Livingston said exit interviews haven't suggested that's the case.
Ultimately, it was agreed upon that the problem of deputy retention is primarily a result of less pay and benefits compared to other agencies.
"In the end, we just need to figure out a way to offer a better compensation package," Mitchoff said.
In comparison to agencies that hire most of the deputies, the county offers nearly 25% less net pay, according to data presented at the meeting.
Supervisor Federal Glover said the county has to explore ways of increasing compensation for deputies in a way that's sustainable.
"If you look across the state, other county agencies are having this same problem," Glover said.
The supervisors noted that labor contract negotiations with the sheriff's office are approaching in July of next year.
Sgt. Shawn Welch, president of the Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriffs Association, said he's hoping to see some results come from those negotiations.
"I was sitting in our office, going through old negotiation documents -- they were all talking about how take-home pay was too low and that it's affecting recruitment and retention," Welch said.
Those documents stretched back a decade, he said, so what the supervisors heard Tuesday "shouldn't be a surprise."