Eight months ago, a Costa Mesa police officer pulled up to an Eastside grocery store.
Four teenagers had tried to steal liquor, and employees called for help in restraining them. Inside, one of the kids reached for the officer's service gun. Another took a swing, hitting the cop under the eye.
An off-duty Orange County sheriff's deputy, who happened to be at the store, jumped in to help, and he and the officer wrangled two of the teenagers. Reinforcements arrived, detaining the other two suspects.
The Oct. 15 fight came at an expense. One officer needed stitches. Another suffered a strain that's since kept him from working.
They were not alone. October marked the worst stretch of on-duty injuries in years — eight Costa Mesa Police Department officers were hurt in two weeks alone. Those numbers are in line with a larger trend. Since 2009, on-duty injuries have doubled, according to data the Daily Pilot obtained through a Public Records Act request.
There were 10 injuries — meaning officers were hurt so badly they couldn't work for various periods of time — in 2009. That number, which climbed by two or three a year, reached 20 in 2013.
The spike in on-duty injuries, department brass and rank-and-file officers agree, is due to an aging, smaller core of officers working longer hours with less backup. The injuries, they contend, are partly the result of a departmental staffing shortage that has left officers vulnerable, particularly when they work alone.
Despite the injuries and lower staffing levels, elected officials argue that the crime rate has dropped and patrol levels — the number of cops on the street at any given time — remains high.
The CMPD is scrambling to fill 30 vacancies accumulated over four years. As cops headed for retirement or transfers, replacements weren't hired because of tightening budgets and a fight with the City Council over pension reform.
The departmental budget allows 136 sworn personnel, but the CMPD is operating with only two-thirds of that, according to the city's human resources department.
Because of the vacancies, injuries and other factors keeping officers off the job, only 86 sworn personnel were available to work as of Friday.
"As a woman, as a person who lives on the Westside, as a mother and a grandmother, that scares me," said City Councilwoman Wendy Leece.
'Fewer people working more hours'
The Costa Mesa Police Assn. says a ballooning workload is wearing down its members.
"Fewer people working more hours, that's what it comes down to," said Rob Dimel, the association's president.
Indeed, overtime has increased, according to annual reports on employee compensation. Excluding officers ranked sergeant and above, Costa Mesa police worked an average of 263 hours of overtime in 2013 compared with 249 in 2012.
The 2011 report did not track overtime by hours, but according to dollar amounts, the trend continued.
Officers earned an average of $13,500 of overtime in 2011 — about $3,000 less than in 2012 and $4,000 less than in 2013.
Dimel, who works patrol, responded to a disruptive-student call earlier this year at Costa Mesa High School.