As the Fresno Police Department struggles with a staffing and recruitment problem, Police Chief Paco Balderrama and the City Council during its budget hearing on Tuesday also tackled another department challenge: long-term absences. And the Fresno Bee reported some of the comments made about this problem.
In a related issue discussed at the same meeting, Councilmember Esmeralda Soria pointed out that since 2012, the police department’s workers’ compensation costs steadily climbed, from about $4.96 million 10 years ago to $11.4 million in the upcoming fiscal year 2022 budget. That incline in costs continued to occur despite the adoption in 2015 of an alternative dispute resolution program meant to reduce the number of days officer were out of work and the resulting workers’ compensation costs.
Last year, Soria called for an audit of that program, which apparently never happened.
The department is operating with just under 700 officers, and Mayor Jerry Dyer charged Balderrama with recruiting 120 new officers in 15 months to boost the department’s ranks. It was noted however, that long-term absences are exacerbating the staffing problem.
Balderrama said when he first took the helm of the department in January, over 100 officers were on long-term leave. Since then, that number dropped to 80, but the problem persists. Fresno Police Department’s system pays officers more to stay home, he said.
“What we have here is we have a system like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The fact that you can be off of work, and you could actually make more money than you do coming to work, so there’s not a whole lot of incentive. … I believe that there was very little to no accountability before.”
To tackle it, Balderrama created an employee services investigative unit to manage workers’ compensation claims and follow up with employees and their doctors if they’re out on extended leave for an injury or medical reason.
“My officers that are working the streets every night are tired of doing it with skeleton crews,” Balderrama said. “If I could wave a magic wand and bring these 80 people back tomorrow, we’d be in a lot better position right now.”
Councilmember Esmeralda Soria wondered if it was appropriate for law enforcement officers to investigate those claims.
“The reason (the chief) is using law enforcement, we’re viewing it as a criminal activity,” City Manager Thomas Esqueda said. “If you are, you know, gaming the workers’ comp system, that’s criminal activity. That’s why we’re having police officers investigate that stuff.”
Mayor Dyer said city officials need to look into all of the contributing factors more deeply, but he thinks the workers’ comp fraud unit was a good place to start.