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Urgent Action Needed to Address Dangerous Working Conditions for Richmond's Public Safety Workers

CM Robinson and Staff

Jul 14, 2023

Urgent Action Needed to Address Working Conditions 
for Richmond's Public Safety Workers

Recently, the City of Richmond has been grappling with a pressing issue that demands our immediate attention: the perilous working conditions faced by our public safety workers. The situation has reached a critical stage, even though there has been a valiant and successful effort to hire more police and firefighters to fill the approved and budgeted vacant positions, the new hires have not yet outpaced the rate of promotions, retirements, resignations, and various forms of leaves. This has left us with an ongoing alarming overreliance on mandatory overtime in both the police and fire departments. This unsustainable practice not only compromises the well-being, health, and safety of our dedicated officers and firefighters but also jeopardizes the safety and security of our community as a whole.

At a recent neighborhood council meeting, a police officer, clearly overwhelmed and fatigued, shared the distressing reality of being on his 18th hour of duty. It is deeply concerning that individuals we entrust with the highest expectations are pushed to their limits due to mandatory overtime. 

For instance, because our firefighters regularly work 24-hour shifts, mandatory overtime for firefighters means they are being required to work multiple concurrent 24-hour shifts at a time. 10+ days in a row resulting in over 200+ hour shifts. 

Firefighters are facing structure fires, wildfires, vehicle fires, car crashes, general emergency response (EMS) services etc while they are on their 10th, 12th and 18th days of concurrent 24-hour shifts. Imagine being required to be away from your family, friends, your own beds, home cooked meals, missing kids growing up, birthdays, and putting extreme stress on your spouses and your relationships for these epic shifts, week after week, month after month. Unfortunately, this has become the new norm in Richmond. 

Mandatory overtime is an unfortunate reality in public safety. State mandates and union agreements dictate minimum staffing levels to ensure public safety, but the level we are experiencing in Richmond is far from normal. Public safety roles inherently involve long hours, but subjecting officers and firefighters to mandatory multiple consecutive days over long periods of time is an aberration from normal expectations. 

At some point we must ask ourselves when is it unreasonable to expect our public safety workers to be able to make sound decisions in the interest of public health and welfare, or to prevent injuring themselves while they do very dangerous jobs, when they have been required to work under these conditions with no end in sight. 

It is unrealistic to expect anyone to sustain the level of demand we require of our public safety staff without adverse consequences.

We have to recognize that this situation is setting the stage for potential tragedy and we must take more immediate actions to remedy it. 


Why is this Happening?

First off, it’s important for me to note that the crime rate in Richmond is historically low. So it must be clear that this current crisis of excessive mandatory overtime is NOT about a threat of increasing crime, but rather about the need to protect the health and welfare of public safety workers and by extension all of the residents they are sworn to protect. 

As a city council member, I believe that we should always “solve” for reduced crime rates, while making sure we are creating a safe and healthy workplace for police and fire staff. 

In Richmond, increasing crime prevention programs and alternatives to policing programs while decreasing the number of budgeted sworn officers has resulted in  decreasing crime rates.  We need to continue to move in this positive direction. 

That said, there are a number of layered dynamics that are working together to cause this crisis of excessive overtime, a few of which I will explore here. 


Difficulty recruiting new public safety staff is a national issue, not just a Richmond issue. Due to the over a decade of declining trust in law enforcement resulting, at least in part, from a multitude of high profile and well documented instances where police use of excessive force, blatant racism and other abuses were captured on video, audio, email and text messages and shared widely in both traditional and social media the American public just does not embrace public safety officers, specifically police officers, as they have in the past. 

In light of this reality, our police force has a lot of work to do to build and rebuild trust with community members. This trust is particularly very hard to build if you are in the 16th hour of an 18 hour mandatory overtime shift. 


One of the primary drivers of the dependency on mandatory overtime is the very high vacancy rate in both RPD and RFD. 

In the 2023-2023 fiscal year budget the Richmond Police Department is funded to have 145 sworn budgeted sworn officer positions and 67 non-sworn RPD staff for a total of 212 budgeted RPD staff positions.  Of those budgeted positions there are currently 46 vacancies (27 sworn vacancies and 19 professional staff). That is a 19% vacancy rate for sworn officers and 28% for professional staff.  [Data source: Attachment 5 - Fiscal Year 2023-2024 Proposed Position Listing]

  • Does not include number of temporary vacancies caused by various leaves, retirement and promotions

Similarly, in the 2023-2024 fiscal year budget the Richmond Fire Department has 91 sworn budgeted sworn positions and 5 non-sworn RFD staff for a total of 96 budgeted RFD staff positions.  Of those budgeted positions we have 15 total vacancies (12 sworn and 3 professional vacancies). That is a 13% vacancy rate for sworn firefighters and 60% for professional staff.  [Data source: Attachment 5 - Fiscal Year 2023-2024 Proposed Position Listing]

*Does not include number of temporary vacancies caused by various leaves, retirement and promotions

Again, because there are mandated minimum staffing for both police and fire for public safety reasons, overtime is used to make sure each shift meets the mandatory minimum number of officers, or firefighters, required to be on duty each shift.


But the impacts on staffing that vacancies have are made worse by other factors that are not often included in this conversation namely staff loss due to retirements, personnel on various leaves (medical, family, vacation etc), and even promotions. All of these forms of staff loss either temporarily or permanently impact RPD and RFDs ability to meet the mandatory minimum shift staffing each week, further increasing the need for reliance on mandatory overtime.

Police and Fire have very high injury rates due to the dangerous nature of the work that they do for the community. Medical leaves for these departments can often extend for months at a time so that staff’s bodies have the proper time to heal. Often leaves are further extended because we have particular difficulty quickly processing workers compensation claims thus leaving injured public safety staff in limbo and increasing the extreme burden on crews that are still working by increasing the need to use mandatory overtime to cover injured staff. There is much more to say about the drivers of this issue but for now it's important to note that these types of leaves are NOT figured into vacancy rates or recruitment because the positions are technically filled, even if in actuality the staff member is unavailable to work. I have been told that at any point in time from 10 -13 additional police and fire staff are out on some kind of leave. So in order to understand the order of magnitude of the vacancy issue we must also add these additional “vacancies” due to leaves to the vacancy numbers above.


During discussions with Police Chief French, the chief shared that it takes over 18 months to bring on a new officer through the academy and hiring process. This further complicates creating and executing a plan to resolve the situation. Especially when you consider that not all academy enrollees make it through the academy so that they are eligible for employment as an officer. Currently, the rate of successful hires of academy graduates falls short of the attrition rate. 

Similarly, the fire department has long turn around times for new hires and an extensive academy and training process. 

This stark picture of a very real challenge facing our city demands immediate attention. This state of affairs increases the likelihood of injuries and unsafe work conditions. We must do more to plot a path that has the greatest likelihood of remedying this excessive mandatory overtime issue as soon as possible.




Some extraordinary steps have been taken already by the City Manager’s office and Human Resources to hire an outside contractor to conduct a marketing campaign to help recruit new officers and both police and fire have hosted recent academies and participated in recruitment. In the last 6 months, the City Council approved dramatic compensation increases for both police and fire in an effort to make Richmond wages competitive with surrounding jurisdictions. And there have been new efforts to recruit locally at our high schools. But clearly, more must be done to get ahead of attrition so that the need for such extensive mandatory overtime can come to an end.

As a City Councilmember, I find this situation deeply disturbing. I don't think I am alone in thinking this. My conversations with Chief French have made it clear that the welfare of her officers is at the forefront of her mind and she is working hard to address this issue. I know others in leadership, and other positions in the city, also know this is a serious problem and are working on solutions. And we still must do more to bring this situation to an end. 

The current state of affairs is neither humane, nor is it the right way to care for the bodies, minds, and families of our public safety workers and arguably has the potential to put residents who must interact with exhausted officers, or who may need to depend on firefighters for life saving aid, at increased risk. 

Pushing our public safety workers beyond their limits creates unreasonable obstacles for them to perform at their best. Expecting them to face highly stressful and dangerous situations, some equipped with deadly firearms, under extreme fatigue, could compromise their ability to make optimal decisions that keep themselves and our communities safe. 


I firmly believe we must take extraordinary measures to end excessive mandatory overtime. We must explore more potential solutions suggested by rank and file officers and firefighters such as organizing additional academies, lateral hires, doing even more local recruiting and other short-term measures that can help alleviate the pressure on our public safety staff. 

We also need to move forward on community driven solutions such as the Community Crisis Response Program that has the potential of taking over some non-emergency calls (which acount for approximately 10% of all calls) off of the plates of RPD when fully implemented. The Community Crisis Response Program, will dispatch a team of specially trained community responders with EMT, mental health and conflict resolution skills who can help de-escalate interpersonal conflicts and connect residents in crisis to much needed services. This program has been approved by the City Council for over a year and a plan has been developed for implementing it with the support of a consultant, but has yet to be implemented.

There are also opportunities to explore how and if traffic safety issues could be partially or fully addressed by unsworn officers for things like abandoned vehicles, a big issue in Richmond for both police and fire. Recently, there have been a rash of of abandon vehicle fires that are very dangerous for firefighters to handle and have the potential of causing larger structure or grass fires. It has been proposed that the towing and tagging of abandoned vehicles be transferred to the Public Works department which would be a much more cost effective, and if properly staff, more expeditious way of dealing with the abandoned car issue and again it would relieve pressure on officers so they can focus more on public safety issues that require their level of specialized training and discipline. 


At this juncture, we need strong leadership to develop a short-term plan to address this critical situation. We must lean on the leadership of our chiefs, Chief French and Chief Montoya to work collaboratively with the wealth of expertise available to them in their senior leadership teams to bring forward additional initiatives based in the experiences of officers and firefighters with the goal of both temporarily relieving pressure, and ultimately ending the necessity for mandatory overtime within the next 24 months. 

Leadership must also meet and confer with their related unions to make sure any new initiatives have the union input and support they need to be successful.

We also need the prioritized support of Human Resources so that crucial hiring processes move forward expeditiously. If we need to allocate additional temporary resources to support this effort, then let’s do that so we can solve this problem within the next 24 months.  


Excessive public safety overtime is an open wound in the city budget. Currently public safety overtime costs the city $8,885,208 each year (on average $807,746.14 per month). This has been the general trend since, at least, the 2019-2020 budget year. Just to be clear, this cost is in ADDITION to the normal budget allocation for public safety staffing which already constitutes the biggest segment of the city staffing budget. [DATA SOURCE: 6.b. Overtime Report ( Public Safety) (May 2023)

So not only will solving this problem help to save the city money but it will improve the lives, health and working conditions of our public safety workers and by extension all Richmond residents who may need to depend on public safety during an emergency situation in the near future. 

Another piece of this complex mandatory overtime puzzle is again working on establishing key trust relationships between city staff, public safety leadership and unions. If we had stronger, healthier relationships between these parties, important cost reducing tools we could use to help reduce overtime such as the ADR, which has the potential to expedite workers comp claims, would be a viable solution. Currently, without leadership in place who can build and maintain healthy trust-based relationships these tools remain out of reach. 


What’s Next

When we return to the new City Council session, working with my fellow council members to directly address this issue will be my highest priority. 

*Despite our challenges, it is worth noting again that crime rates in Richmond remain low, and the work of our firefighters has been exemplary, even amidst these unfavorable conditions. 

Now we must stand with our public safety workers to change their work conditions and relieve the pressure they have been forced to work under. 

Above all, moments like this test the strength of our leaders. Being absent, nonresponsive, or treating this as anything less than a priority is unacceptable. Our public safety workers deserve healthy work environments; our community's safety depends on it. 

The time to ACT is now.

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