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In an unparalleled exodus sparked by money and morale issues, as many as 16 Sonoma County sheriff’s patrol deputies left the department between 2014 and 2015 for other jobs.

The departures led to a reduction in services provided by the Sheriff’s Office. The department shut its community-policing unit and experienced a 30 percent drop in deputy-initiated cases, such as traffic stops and spontaneous investigations of suspicious activity, over the last three years.

A handful of detectives were reassigned to fill out patrol ranks. Overtime spiked as the average workday grew to 14 hours or more, with deputies required to work longer shifts. That put injuries at historic levels, reducing the number of available deputies with so many out on medical leave.

Sheriff Steve Freitas said deputies responded to every 911 call, but the Sheriff’s Office lacked the bodies to provide the kind of proactive, community-oriented policing he wants to see — a problem that persists to this day.

“We were still answering our calls. When someone needed help we helped them,” Freitas said. “But the time in between calls ... are you still going out and searching as much when you’re that tired? That kind of stuff went down.”

For decades, the Sheriff’s Office has attracted veteran officers from other agencies because of its varied job opportunities. And for a department of fiercely loyal, career-long deputies, the departures cut a big chunk of experience from the patrol staff of about 200.

Freitas called the departures “unprecedented.”

“I really feel like we were in a crisis mode. We had lost more people in probably two years than we had lost for 30 years before that,” Freitas said.

The sheriff said people left primarily because pay and health care contributions were out of balance compared to other agencies. It put him at a steep disadvantage to recruit and retain staff.

Before the new contract, patrol deputies made between $70,000 and $95,000 a year, plus benefits. That was about 6 percent lower than average salaries paid by six other Northern California law enforcement agencies, according to a study done by the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.

Many deputies applied for jobs at the Santa Rosa Police Department, where officers make between $78,000 and $100,300 a year before benefits. Four have been hired, including a sergeant.

Other deputies have headed for police departments in Vallejo, Healdsburg and Novato. Some took jobs in Napa and Tahoe, and two left for Idaho.

Deputies pointed out the exodus was about more than money because over the years their wages were less than others in law enforcement in the county and they hadn't left.

Interviews with deputies revealed the departures included frustration that the sheriff was not more outspoken in his defense of his staff after incidents such as the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013 by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, as well as a tense encounter last year between Deputy Marcus Holton and an 18-year-old Petaluma woman who claims he used excessive force at the time of her arrest.

Both incidents have led to federal civil rights lawsuits, and both are pending.

There was a “perception and belief Erick Gelhaus wasn’t backed up and the sheriff wasn’t there for the troops,” said one longtime law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Freitas acknowledged morale issues but maintained he did publicly defend his department in both the Gelhaus and Holton incidents. He said he is trying to do more, in response to feedback from his staff. In April, for example, he directed staff to post a video on the department’s YouTube page of an interview he gave to a TV reporter in which he defended Holton.

He believes the department’s morale issues stemmed from the reduced workforce and overtime, coupled with community and media fallout from the Lopez shooting. Additionally, he said, other high-profile shootings across the country sparked further criticism of law enforcement practices nationwide.

“I agree it’s a morale issue,” Freitas said. “There were other people who were upset with me personally or with administration. I also think it’s a bigger cultural thing in law enforcement throughout the country.”

Now, deputies and the sheriff say morale has improved, largely due to a contract approved in March by the Board of Supervisors that boosted pay by 6 percent over two years and improved benefits. Departures have slowed and overtime has been reduced.

Freitas said about a dozen deputies are in training and another 15 or more are being considered for hire, including a return of veteran applicants.

“We’re doing good. We’ve turned the corner from where people are leaving and we can’t hire anybody. In fact, we just had one of our deputies come back.”

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann can be reached at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport. Staff Writer Julie Johnson can be reached at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.