SAN JOSE, CA – By the time a city audit scrutinizing lackluster police hiring lands on the City Council agenda this month, a solution could already be in the works for a problem that has compounded years of steady departures that have decimated the force.
Call it prescient governing or the stars aligning, but both police brass and union leadership say an agreement reached with the city over the summer — ending years of grueling start-and-stop negotiations over pay and pension and disability benefits — stands to wash away many of the agency’s recruiting and retention difficulties.
The audit report, initially set for council review Tuesday but now deferred to later in October, details the shrinking of the San Jose Police Department by a third over the past seven years, starting with recession-spurred austerity measures followed by political turmoil over pay and pension reform. And it notes that in 2012 the department started running a manpower deficit as early retirements and resignations far outpaced new hires.
The report urges the department to increase its outreach and community engagement, boost hiring and retention bonuses and refocus on diversifying the police force to better resemble the city’s population.
You’ll find little disagreement in police circles. But the report doesn’t mention what Officer James Gonzales, vice president of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, called the “elephant in the room.”
“We know people want to work in San Jose. It’s purely benefit and pay deficits that are the reasons people are not coming here,” Gonzales said. “Once those are remedied, San Jose will become the employer of choice and we will fill those academies.”
The audit was strangely timed, though by no fault of its producers. It was commissioned well before, and finalized around the same time, of the historic labor pact, which all sides agree will bring help bring in more new recruits.
“If the city and POA can lock arms and say kumbaya, we can work in a collaborative way to bring more recruits into the pipeline,” city spokesman David Vossbrink said.
SJPD’s staffing troubles have been well-chronicled. Since the police academies were revived in 2012 after a budget-spurred hiatus, the classes have progressively decreased in size from a high of 54 in 2013 to the latest crop that checked in at 16, all while the department has seen more than 100 officers go out the door each year. Today, there are about 950 sworn officers on the force, but not all are cleared for street duty. It’s the department’s lowest number in 30 years and is far under the 1,109 officers the city budget authorizes.
The deficit was not due to a dearth in applicants but rather a decrease in those who could pass through several layers of tests and backgrounding, coupled with outside police agencies routinely hiring away recruits before they even completed the academy.
To that end, the audit, glibly and somewhat obtusely, recommends the department increase its pool of qualified applicants. Assistant Chief Eddie Garcia said the decrease was a product of both the overhanging political cloud and the department refusing to adjust its entry standards even during crisis.
“We want to maintain the caliber of officer we have,” Garcia said.
But a final resolution remains frustratingly out of reach: The new pay and benefit framework cannot be implemented until the city finishes ongoing contract negotiations with nine other employee unions. There is no definitive timeline for their completion, but once that happens, Gonzales foresees “a ripple effect in the applicant pool that will help recruiting.”
Both Gonzales and Garcia contend that dozens of former officers who left the department for better pay stability at other Bay Area police agencies are eyeing a return to SJPD once the new terms are enacted.
“There’s a lot of promise, and we’re anecdotally hearing a lot of officers want to come back,” Garcia said. “But they’re not going to pull the trigger until they’re assured the framework is put into place.”
The assistant chief added that the new landscape projected by the settlement could also reverse a trend of veteran officers leaving the moment they are eligible to retire.
“Let’s not kid ourselves here,” Garcia said. “If we put the framework in place and continue to work on compensation, some of these recruitment issues are going to fix themselves.”