A patrol officer on the Menlo Park force for five years, Ms. Byars is nearing the end of her fifth straight day of at least 12 hours on the job.
She's been up since 4:30 a.m., is running on about four hours of sleep, and still has an hour-long drive back to her home in the East Bay.
And her week still isn't over: She picked up a couple of extra shifts, and still has two 12-hour days ahead of her.
"You can't just leave the streets empty," Ms. Byars said. "You get tired, you get depressed, but you sign up for overtime because you have to."
Overtime has become a must for Ms. Byars and other officers, as an exodus of officers from Menlo Park has left the force understaffed, overworked, and inexperienced.
Thirty officers have left the force since 2004, some through retirement. But 17 of them resigned to join other police agencies, according to a recent city report. Many of them have cited a mix of exhaustion, morale problems and lack of opportunities as their reasons for leaving.
Although a new aggressive recruiting effort is under way with the support of the City Council, Police Chief Bruce Goitia said three more officers are expected to transfer to other police departments soon, and three more officers, including Cmdr. Terri Molakides, will retire.
Cmdr. Molakides has been with the department for 29 years, and will retire by next May, Chief Goitia said.
Experience is a key concern. The department has 50 sworn officers when fully staffed, but that number has dropped to the low 40s. About 20 current officers have less than two years of law enforcement experience, Chief Goitia said.
The flood of resignations has made officers such as Ms. Byars, with only five years on the force, one of the more experienced officers out on patrol.
"I like catching the bad guys and I like helping people," Ms. Byars said. "This is my home as a police officer, but I'm starting to get really tired."
Jason Poirier, an officer who transferred to Menlo Park from Brisbane just over a year ago, said he enjoys the overtime, but the department needs more cops.
"I'm used to working on just a couple hours of sleep, so I'll take on the extra hours," said Mr. Poirier, a former U.S. Marine. "To an extent, overtime is a good thing ... but the more time we spend covering shifts, the less time we have to train and get experience in other areas."
Making it work
Thanks to the willingness of cops such as Ms. Byars and Mr. Poirier, patrol shifts are covered, reports are written, and the department has been able to respond to emergencies, but with more departures on the horizon, officers are getting burnt out.
"It's hard to have a stable environment in the police department when you have this amount of turnover," Chief Goitia said. "It takes an officer a very short amount of time to resign, but it takes us a very long time to get someone trained and ready to be in the field. ... We're running out of bodies to fill holes."
He added that when officers have to report to court, or get sick or injured, other officers are forced to come in on their off days. Response times haven't been affected, but non-emergency calls aren't getting the priority they have in the past, Chief Goitia said.
The extra hours put in by officers has also come at a cost — in the 2006-07 fiscal year, the department paid officers $1.29 million in overtime — 28 percent more than what was projected.
The city should have 30 officers on patrol duty, but there are currently only 23, Chief Goitia said. He noted that some special units, such as narcotics, code enforcement, and traffic enforcement, no longer exist, as those officers have been reassigned to patrol to compensate for the staffing shortage.
Mr. Poirier said he has worked back-to-back 17 hour days, and Ms. Byars said she once worked 23 hours straight — not exactly the ideal situation for people who need to be alert at all times.
"I don't have time to work out, I don't have time to eat right, and I don't have time to do the things I'm supposed to do when I'm tired," Ms. Byars said.
The city's dispatch unit is also severely understaffed, as a recent merger of operations with the city of San Carlos — a move that was supposed to make it easier to respond to 911 calls — has actually made things more difficult.
All of the dispatchers who came from San Carlos in the merger have resigned, leaving Menlo Park dispatchers with two cities to cover.
Chief Goitia said the city has hired six new officers — three new recruits going through the academy, and three from other departments — but with impending retirements and more resignations, the department is still a ways from recovering.
"We've had some success finding new officers, but in the case of Terri Molakides, I don't know how I'm going to replace someone with 30 years of experience," he said.
But Menlo Park and other California cities may have to get used to more veteran officers leaving their jobs. A surge in retirements is expected by the year 2012, as baby boomers reach retirement eligibility and can cash in on their pension plans. The current pension benefit offered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System allows 30-year veterans of police departments to receive 90 percent of their annual salary after they retire — a formula in place in Menlo Park.
In Cmdr. Molakides' case, she'll receive $97,000 to $122,000 annually after retiring.
By 2010, there will be 11,000 to 13,000 police officer openings statewide, according to a recent report co-authored by Cmdr. Lacey Burt and Assistant City Manager Audrey Seymour.
More vacancies and a smaller pool of cops to choose from mean that Menlo Park is in fierce competition with departments all over the state to recruit and retain officers — not an easy task considering that the city doesn't offer the pay or opportunities of other law enforcement agencies.
Although Menlo Park provides the state's top pension benefit, the city aims to be an average payer when it comes to base salary, meaning there are always other departments that offer more.
"It's a dog-eat-dog situation in recruiting cops from other agencies," said Cmdr. Burt. "There are two things cops look for — pay and opportunities. Right now, we aren't offering much in those areas compared to most other cities, and we're trying to get creative."
City Manager Glen Rojas, in an effort to address the officer shortage, has created a task force of top city officials and police officers to study surrounding departments and their wage packages.
The starting salary for a line-level police officer in Redwood City (one of the highest-paying employers in the Bay Area), for example, is $85,980 a year, compared with $70,204 a year in Menlo Park, according to data provided by both cities' personnel departments.
The base salary for Redwood City patrol officers is even higher than the $84,680 annual base salary for Menlo Park sergeants.
"Menlo Park has to offer more than we have in the past," said detective Jeff Keegan, president of the Police Officers' Association, the union that represents the city's line-level officers. "With year after year of budget cuts in this city, officers saw there was no light at the end of the tunnel for improving the pay situation in Menlo Park."
Mr. Keegan said that when he joined the force 15 years ago, Menlo Park paid better than a lot of Bay Area cities, and as many as 300 people would apply for open positions.
These days, the city is lucky to get a handful of applicants, he said.
Chief Goitia said although the city aims to provide average salaries during contract negotiations, other cities often raise their salary levels to the point that Menlo Park's labor contracts become outdated several months after they are approved.
But Menlo Park is also a player, not just a victim, in the recruiting game. The city is luring officers away from East Palo Alto — one of the few cities that pay less than Menlo Park, Chief Goitia said.
The chief said it's not just lower pay that is prompting officers to leave Menlo Park; the increased cost of living in the Bay Area is pushing officers to the East Bay and Central Valley.
"Some officers want to buy a home for less than half a million dollars," he said. "You can't do that in Menlo Park, and you can't really do that on this side of the Bay."
All but two officers live outside Menlo Park city limits, with some commuting from as far as Tracy, Modesto, and even Reno.
Chief Goitia said several new police departments in other parts of the state offer higher salaries than Menlo Park, and since they're also closer to officers' homes, the decision to leave Menlo Park is an easy one. In addition to cutting their commutes, other departments provide opportunities in the way of professional development, such as task forces. Due to the officer shortage in Menlo Park, most cops are assigned to patrol.
City Manager Rojas and Chief Goitia said the task force is considering ways to make it more affordable for officers to live in Menlo Park, including creating a subsidized housing program, transportation assistance, or providing live-in quarters for some officers.
"I couldn't drive three hours every day," Chief Goitia said. "We're trying to figure out how to make it easier for people to get to work."
In addition to issues of pay, long hours, and lengthy commutes, a racial discrimination lawsuit had been hanging over the department's head since October 2006, until the suit was settled earlier this month.
Three former black officers, Keith Butler, Kenneth Clayton and Joe Hinkston, were suing the city for $2 million, alleging that Sgt. Ron Prickett created a hostile work environment by targeting the former officers because they are black.
The city agreed to pay $165,000 ($55,000 each) to the three former officers, although the city attorney, council members, and Chief Goitia stressed the decision was made to cut legal costs, not because the city was at fault.
Chief Goitia said the lawsuit did not affect morale, but he has implemented thorough tolerance training for all supervising officers to make sure there are no future problems. "I'm very confident the situation won't repeat itself," he said.
At the suggestion of Mr. Rojas, the council has already approved a new aggressive recruiting campaign to find more officers, and signed off on the creation of a referral bonus program that awards any city employee up to $2,000 for referring an officer who is hired and passes the probationary period.
Mr. Rojas said the next recommendation he may float by the council is to add another supervisory position to the department's structure. He said the department could add a corporal or lieutenant position, giving sergeants a chance to move up the chain of command, and easing commanders' workload.
The Menlo Park Police Department:
• Has lost 30 officers since 2004.
• Has 20 officers — about half the force — with less than two years of law enforcement experience.
• Has officers that work as many as 25 hours of overtime in a week.
• Has a dispatch center that is short four officers, but required to take 911 calls for two cities.
• Has no officers assigned to narcotics, code enforcement, or traffic enforcement.
• Has officers that commute to Menlo Park from as far away as Tracy, Modesto, and Reno.