Where Have All The Cops Gone?

Palm Springs police officer Daniel Buduan moves fluidly around the police cruiser, placing an assault rifle and shotgun he’s just inspected in the vehicle in preparation to ride along with his sergeant. Buduan is a rookie, but he’s a fast learner.

He thinks back to elementary school, when a police officer once let him examine a bullet from his magazine.

“Pretty much at that early age, I knew I wanted to be an officer,” said the 22-year-old Palm Springs native.

Buduan’s department could use a dozen more like him. A hiring crunch has left police departments throughout the Coachella Valley and California thirsty for new recruits, so a fresh face like Buduan is a prize catch. He is one of the few young people getting into policing, during what state police union representatives say is a tough recruitment period.

Open positions for law enforcement professionals in California have increased by 603 percent since 2010, according to the Peace Officer Standards and Training government job listings. By comparison, during the same time period, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a 7 percent increase in open firefighting positions. Several factors are adding to the equation: a post-recession boom in job openings, lack of qualified candidates, change in pension plans, and, to a certain extent, the increased scrutiny police are facing nationwide.

Coachella Valley departments currently have 27 open positions — 12 in Palm Springs, six in Desert Hot Springs, five in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, three in Cathedral City and one in Indio.

“This is unheard of,” Palm Springs Lt. Mike Kovaleff said. “You can pretty much pick a place on the map in California and see that they’re hiring. … We are in a hiring crisis in the state of California.”

Law enforcement agencies are seeing the same drop off in potential employees everywhere, according to Alan Barcelona, president of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77.

“It’s huge. We are experiencing it ourselves,” he said. “The California Alcoholic Beverage Control, for example, is authorized for 145 agent positions and is currently down 40 agents.”

Due to the size and scope of policing at a county level, Sgt. Robert Pickowitz said the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is constantly recruiting, but a dire need has appeared in the area of correctional deputies, who are needed for more patrols of county jails due to an increase of inmates brought on by the passage of AB 109 four years ago. The Assembly bill, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, mandates that people sentenced for non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses serve their time in county jails as opposed to state prisons.

“It’s harder because there is a lot of competition — competition from all over,” Pickowitz said. “A lot of the agencies are trying to scrutinize — we only want the best of the best — but everyone does.”

Less want in

Part of the hiring gap can be blamed on post-recession funding that’s opened departments up to posting more vacancies, but a more pressing issue is the shrinking number of people who want to work in law enforcement, even among the ex-military crowd the profession used to routinely attract.

Answers for a lack of interest in police work are few, but eroding confidence in law enforcement, economic recovery and less appealing benefits packages are blamed across the board.

Now, all 509 law enforcement agencies in the state, including six in the Coachella Valley are vying for a smaller group of candidates, some of whom only rose to the top of the pool when their more qualified classmates left for more appealing positions in other industries.

It’s a competition that valley law enforcement officials say makes it harder to fill open spots.

“I got into this game in the mid-90s and I was testing with hundreds of applicants,” Kovaleff said. “These days, we’re lucky if we get 100 applicants for a trainee position if we leave it open for several months.”

Desert Hot Springs is facing the same problem, especially with the limitations Chief Dale Mondary said come from comparatively small salaries the department can offer in the area. The agency has the smallest starting salary for police officers in the valley, paying $47,412 a year at the baseline level. The only wage lower is that of a correctional deputy for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, which pays about $8,100 less a year but also has far fewer prerequisites.

“It’s tough for all of (the departments),” Mondary said. “If someone wants to be a cop in the Coachella Valley, applying at all these places, we have to fight for them. From my standpoint, the pay that occurs here, or the lack thereof, is really limiting our ability to recruit.”

Bringing new recruits into the Indio Police Department hasn’t been a problem exactly, with two new officers added recently and two more in the process of background checks, but Sgt. Dan Marshall said the agency’s success has required a dedicated effort to attract the best. While five or six candidates might have been brought in to interview with the chief for two positions several years ago, now those who make it to that point are almost guaranteed a job, he said.

Mandated minimum employment levels ensure that the hiring issues haven’t created holes in patrol necessarily, but departments are limited in the flexibility they now have to assign officers to specialized teams such as gang task forces, traffic patrols and detectives.

Changing attitudes

Sentiment towards police in the post-Ferguson era has made the job less attractive, some officials said. The 2014 officer involved shooting of an unarmed black teenager in the Missouri town sparked national protests.

“It’s been some of the negativity across the nation,” Mondary said. “Some of our (possible) candidates say they don’t want to put up with that right now.”

In the classroom, Dr. Larry Gaines, who chairs the Criminal Justice Department at California State University San Bernardino, said there’s no shortage in local students who are interested in criminal justice. He cautions officials from pinning a shrinking pool of candidates solely on a more critical public eye without definitive studies, and argues a more cyclical reason for the problem.

“We have all the students we can handle,” Gaines said. “I would say it’s economics more than anything else.”

Citing decreased unemployment rates, Gaines said difficulties hiring may stem from opportunities emerging in the improved job market.

That, plus the increasing number of red flags, such as domestic violence and drug use that can disqualify candidates during the background check phase of hiring, can leave agencies with fewer options, he said.

“It’s always difficult, but sometimes it’s more difficult,” Gaines said. “I think it’s just the nature of the beast.”

Policing has always been a difficult job, but with excellent benefits and overtime opportunities that can easily net a new officer a six-figure salary, enough people are generally drawn to the field to prevent this level of problem. Once some of the financial incentives are removed, however, it can be tough to draw hires to open positions.

Benefits changes

The recent public service pension reform in Palm Springs has been a huge detriment to bringing new people into the department, Kovaleff said.

Officers in the previous pension system earned 3 percent of their salary every year toward their retirement benefits and were able to retire at 50. Now, officers can still earn the same percentage, but can’t retire until 55.

New recruits are in an even worse position. The best offer they can get in the city is now a 2.7 percent annual contribution and a retirement age of 57.

Police officers who transfer from another department are forced into these new retirement plans and denied an immediate step up in pay that they would have received at their previous department.

Hiring these officers, who have already been trained, saves the department the cost of sending a new officer through the police academy as well as more than two months of additional training. But bringing someone in when they know they’ll have to wait an extra half-decade to retire is almost impossible.

While young candidates may not pay much attention to retirement benefits, plan changes have had a dramatic effect across the state. Four years ago, a measure passed in San Jose reduced benefits for all city employees. The result was catastrophic enough that the city soon reversed the reduction.

“There was a mass exodus from San Jose PD,” said Barcelona, of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association. “The department lost 400 qualified, trained police officers and couldn’t fill positions. … You cannot expect people to do a dangerous, life-threatening job for the same benefits as those who do not face danger or death while working.”

The ‘CSI’ factor

Getting the jump on the few remaining candidates before others means making an effort unlike many departments have made in recent memory.

None of the valley departments have gone as far as those in Beverly Hills and Santa Cruz, which despite having some of the most sought-after positions are offering $10,000 to $20,000 signing bonuses for lateral transfers.

Hiring at Indio Police Department isn’t lagging to the point that such extravagant financial incentives are needed, Sgt. Marshall said, but the agency is sure to emphasize the educational opportunities and new technologies officers will have access to during pre-graduation visits to police academies.

Desert Hot Springs police is working to expedite its background checks in hopes of catching new recruits before any other department reaches out to them.

“Maybe if we offer them a job first … even though they really want to work for (another department), they think they don’t want to turn it down in case they don’t get the job somewhere else,” Chief Mondary said.

Many of those who are still willing to do a dangerous job for lesser benefits are still lacking in the eyes of the departments who need them, he added.

The glamorization of police work perpetuated by TV shows such as “CSI” and “Law and Order” has created a new problem among a new generation of recruits — a lack of competence in basic skills such as writing reports and communicating effectively with community members, law enforcement officials said.

“Our candidates think from a young age ‘I get to drive a car fast and make arrests and that’s all I need to do,” Mondary said. “We struggle with that. We get people who would be very good on the street and then they can’t write and they’ll end up getting themselves terminated for it.”

The department works with local high schools, colleges and new hires who are struggling with these aspects of the job, but some simply lack the technical skills to cut it as a police officer.

Even in this time of desperation, Mondary said he’s still looking for the best and brightest for his department — a person who can remember the moment that inspired a passion for law enforcement like Buduan’s memory of that bullet.

“I don’t just want an officer, I want the officer,” Mondary said.

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