California Joint Powers Insurance Authority: Written by Larry Breceda, CCEO, Treasurer, and Matthew Silver, Esq., CCEO, 2nd Vice President & Legislative Director, California
Code enforcement officers serve a vital role in protecting and improving communities throughout California. By some accounts, there are more than 2,000 code enforcement officers in this state alone, not to mention thousands more across the United States.
They are charged with enforcing a wide array of state and local laws found in the municipal codes and county codes of every jurisdiction in California. These range from straightforward yard maintenance issues to extremely dangerous and complex substandard housing and building issues, enforcing laws relating to illegal cannabis, enforcing pandemic-related orders, insect and rodent infestations, and land use and parking enforcement.
The State definition of “code enforcement officer” reflects these broad duties, defining one as:
Any person who is not [a peace officer] and who is employed by any governmental subdivision, public or quasi-public corporation, public agency, public service corporation, any town, city, county, or municipal corporation, whether incorporated or chartered, who has enforcement authority for health, safety, and welfare requirements, whose duties include enforcement of any statute, rule, regulation, or standard, and who is authorized to issue citations, or file formal complaints.
It also includes certain employees of the State Department of Housing and Community Development.
Adding to these duties, code enforcement officers in California increasingly are being tasked with community quality of life and safety duties that put them at risk. In addition, in many states, with the public shift away from traditional policing, code enforcement officers are asked to fill the gap, and consequently, are dealing with nuisances and other issues that were traditionally in the realm of police departments.
As a result, code enforcement officers face heightened physical threats as well as health risks. By definition, code enforcement officers put themselves in dangerous situations dealing with problem issues such as mold and lead abatement, environmental hazards and discharges, and seeking compliance from hostile violators, some of whom have criminal histories and do not appreciate government agency inspectors on their property or otherwise requiring them to comply with the law.
According to data compiled by the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers (CACEO), based on reports from code enforcement officers between 2015 and 2021, 141 safety incidents involving code enforcement officers were reported. This included 29 incidents of actual attacks, assaults, and being held against one’s will, and 108 incidents involving some form of a threat, stalking, or brandishing a weapon. Unfortunately, the number of such incidents are increasing both in terms of volume and danger.
Nonetheless, despite the increased risk thrust upon code enforcement officers by virtue of their job duties, it is no secret that code enforcement officers in many jurisdictions lack basic protections. By law, code enforcement officers are not peace officers. Non-sworn officers, however, still need reasonable protections to do their jobs. Very few jurisdictions have safety standards specifically applicable to code enforcement officers. This leaves them entirely without safety protocols, training, and tools in some agencies, and in others, are subject to inadequate safety standards applicable to dissimilar jobs like building inspectors, planning staff, and the like.
In California, CACEO, in partnership with Senator Monique Limon, has sought to begin addressing this issue with Senate Bill (SB) 296, which Governor Newsom signed into law on October 7, 2021. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2022. SB 296 received rare unanimous approval from the Legislature, although it took a significant effort to ensure it passed the Appropriations Committees in both legislative chambers.
This new law is simple but effective: every city or county that employs a code enforcement officer must develop safety standards that are specific and appropriate to code enforcement officers and the threats they face in their jurisdiction. Any person who falls within the definition of “code enforcement officer” under State law, regardless of official job title, is covered by SB 296.
In California, with its 482 cities and 57 counties, a one-size-fits-all program would not work: code enforcement officers deal with different issues and face different hazards in each jurisdiction. Furthermore, each employer may have different, but equally effective, approaches to safety standards specific to enforcement officers.
To comply with this law, agencies will have to adopt standards, and in doing so, undergo a two-part process: evaluating in some manner the threats, risks, and hazards facing code enforcement officers in their specific jurisdiction, and second, developing standards “appropriate” for those threats, risks, and hazards. Furthermore, these standards will need to be re-evaluated and updated from time to time as the threats, risks, and hazards to code enforcement officers evolve, as they have tremendously in the last several years. A model minimum safety standards template and information on SB 296 training is available on the CACEO website.
The California JPIA was asked by CACEO to contribute to its board-approved model safety standards. Revisions to CACEO’s existing template may be forthcoming. The California JPIA will work with its members to ensure that SB 296’s requirements are understood so that each agency can put in place appropriate safety standards for its jurisdiction.