SAN JOSE, CA – Adding to the drumbeat of dwindling officer numbers at the San Jose Police Department was the news Wednesday that the next police academy will be among the smallest in decades, underlining concerns about the agency’s ability to attract new cops amid a heated political battle over pay and pension reform.
According to department figures, of 58 candidates forwarded by police recruiters and backgrounders to its hiring board, 29 new applicants passed muster and will enter the academy beginning in May, joined by two cadets who had to pull out of the last academy due to injury. Historically, SJPD has aimed to field 60 cadets per academy, knowing that it will lose members before graduation or the end of field training.
Historical trends suggest fewer will get through, but even a perfect completion rate still leaves the department well short of its own modest estimates.
The small-than-expected academy class comes just weeks after a bleak staffing projection released in late March pointed out the need to bolster the police department’s ranks. According to the projection, if early-retirement and resignation rates go unabated, by 2016, there will be 100 fewer cops. San Jose police would probably be able to field just over 800 cops for duty, marking a 33-percent reduction from six years ago.
To meet the staffing projection, the department estimated it needed at least 35 cadets to graduate from the May class.
Assistant Police Chief Eddie Garcia said academy sizes are cyclical, but that the unusually low number raises red flags about the need for the city and police union to come up with a plan to make SJPD more competitive with the surrounding Bay Area agencies that have been hiring away officers in droves since austerity measures and overhauling pension reform were implemented starting in 2008.
Some of the givebacks have been restored, but city leaders and the union remain at odds over bolstering police pay and benefits, and more importantly, how to pay for them.
“I didn’t need to see those numbers to know we have retention and recruiting issues,” Garcia said. “We know we have a lot of work to do.”
Mayor Chuck Reed considers the low numbers for the May academy mostly an aberration, saying police are back up to getting a normal amount of applications for the next training class in December. He is also carrying a proposal by Chief Larry Esquivel to add a third police academy in the next fiscal year; there are typically two per year.
Reed has in recent months slammed the city’s police union, saying they are actively encouraging new recruits and veteran cops to go work elsewhere as it fights with City Hall over pay and benefits packages.
“They’re trying to create as big a crisis as they can,” Reed said. “It’s just something we have to deal with until the police union tries to help us rebuild the force instead of trying to tear it down.”
The San Jose Police Officers’ Association has dismissed such talk as political deflection.
“I don’t know who these people are,” said union president Sgt. Jim Unland, referring to potential candidates looking elsewhere. “On their own they understand the situation here.”
Unland pointed to a slow trickle of lateral hires from other agencies, saying SJPD, which historically hired cops away from agencies across the country, has “done a full 180.”
And as the battle of policy and rhetoric rages on, police brass such as Garcia are left to keep the existing troops motivated and willing to stay on board even as they watch former colleagues reap in better pay and a more stable pension situation at other Bay Area police agencies, notably Redwood City, which like several agencies are headed by former SJPD supervisors.
Garcia said he believes there is a greater sense of urgency to find some agreement. It also happens to be an election year where public safety is the preeminent political issue for the city’s mayoral candidates.
“We can’t take the alarmist view,” Garcia said. “For those who want to work in this agency, we feel this is the best department around. The job itself, you can’t beat it. But there’s no question we need to work on our retention.”