Across the country, police agencies big and small seem to be squarely in an era of layoffs and downsizing-by-attrition. Camden, New Jersey is kind of the ‘poster child’ for this trend — the city famously slashed its police force in half in January 2011 — but there are many other cities in the country whose municipal coffers have forced deep cuts in the ranks. It’s a well-known fact that I’m good friends with a few cops from San Jose (Calif.) Police Department, so I’m personally — and acutely — aware of the 106 positions recently lost in that fine group of troops.
Meanwhile, officers in some agencies have ‘seen the handwriting on the walls’ and lateral’d out before they could be laid off. Officers in other agencies have agreed to defer raises or take pay cuts in order to prevent layoffs. Some agencies have even shuttered their doors completely, letting everybody go.
So when I heard from a friend of mine here at PoliceOne that “the San Antonio Police Department is always hiring,” I was, to say the least, rather incredulous. Consequently I spoke via telephone with Officer Yvonne Padilla — who has been with the department since 2003, serving on patrol, in the VICE unit, and eventually on the Tactical Response Unit — who now is one of the recruiters for the agency.
Applicants from Near and Far
The department is active in attracting applicants from all over the country, making a couple of very important accommodations for applicants who presently live farther than 200 miles from San Antonio. First off, while officers (and aspiring civilians) who live within that 200-mile radius — places like Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, and Waco lie within that area, for example — have to drive to San Antonio to drop off their application materials, people from other states can do a lot of the early application process via mail. Secondly, and this is pretty exceptional, they make every effort to bundle all subsequent ‘in-person’ elements to the application process into two two-day trips to the city.
“If they’re local,” Padilla said, “when they come in to submit their application, an interview is conducted to review the application and ensure that everything is completed. If it’s going to be rejected, it’s going to be rejected right there. For someone who’s out of town, once we received the application, there’re going to be contacted by a background investigator.”
Following the completion of the preliminary background investigation, a detective will call the applicants continuing on in the process to come in for the physical and written tests.
“Everyone, whether out of town or local, will come in and do the PT and the written on the same day. The written test is conducted, they find out their results immediately. If they pass that, they go outside to conduct their PT test, immediately finding out those scores. If they’re local, they’re going to return home and we’ll call them to schedule a future appointment, but if they’re from out of town, we keep them an extra day to have them do their oral assessment board — that way, they don’t have to make several trips down here. The first three steps we conduct while they’re here.”
All candidates who make it through those initial steps will then be given polygraph examination, a psychological examination, a medical and physical examination, and finally, the Chief of Police review and appointment to the police academy.
For out-of-town applicants, SAPD tries hard to ensure that this entire battery of events happens in two days. This significantly reduces the potential cost for an applicant coming from, say, California or New Jersey. Naturally, due to scheduling issues there are some cases in which that second trip becomes a three-day deal, but I can assure you: you will not complain about having an “extra” day in San Antonio. For more on that, read on...
A Vibrant, Growing City
Back in the late 1990s, I was once sent to San Antonio on a two-day business trip. As a result of that brief visit, I can personally attest to two things. First off, the people there are downright friendly (well, the law-abiding citizens are... bad guys are bad guys everywhere). They take “Southern Hospitality” to a level seen only in a small handful of places. Secondly, it’s a visually appealing — even breathtaking — gem of a cityscape, right down to sidewalk level in most places. From the Alamo to the Riverwalk, it’s just a beautiful, well-kept city with historic architecture, modern amenities, and a wide variety of “amusements” to keep you busy.
There are two other facts, however, which I didn’t know until speaking with Officer Padilla. At a time when some cities are mired in a zero-growth (or worse, negative growth) morass, San Antonio is growing. The two abovementioned facts are probably primary contributors to that third thing.
“We get a lot of tourists down here, and a lot of people move in ...People come down and they visit our city and they like the fact that it’s a friendly environment and people want to come back,” Padilla said.
She added that this not only is contributing to the city's overall growth, but that a lot of the people who are interested in applying from outside that 200-mile radius “say things like ‘We were down there visiting,’ or ‘We used to live there and we loved it and we want to come back’,” she said.
The other fact I hadn’t seem to put public safety as a very high priority — for a city of 1.3 million souls, the PD has 2,400 sworn officers. By way of comparison, San Jose (Calif.) has a population of about 1.2 million (countable!) souls, with a sworn police force of about 1,100 officers. For many years, San Jose had been called “the safest big city in America” but given those numbers, San Antonio may now deserve that moniker.
Rigorous, But Equitable Standards
“There are a lot of agencies out there who will bring you in, saying they’re hiring, saying, ‘Come on in and take the test and let you know.’ Then when officers or other applicants get there, and they’ve expensed their airfare, their hotel, their vehicle rentals, and then they get told, ‘We’re not hiring anymore,’ or ‘You’re on an eligibility list.’ I’m not going to say we don’t have an eligibility list, because we do to a certain extent, but because we’re continuously hiring, we want to get 45 cadets per class. With retirements and growth factored in, we need a large influx of applicants to maintain staffing. Recently, it’s been difficult for us to fill all of our openings. While we can’t promise anyone a job, I can say that all of those that have completed processing in the last two years have been hired.”
Why the disparity? According to Padilla, “The biggest thing that we find is that you’ve got to by mentally as well as physically prepared. It’s not all about the physical part — they’ve got to be mentally prepared for the assessment board and the polygraph. You may have put everything in your application, but it’s just intimidating to be in a room hooked up to a polygraph machine being asked all these questions. We tell everyone, ‘We don’t want perfect policemen, we want honest policemen’ — we’re not hiding anything in the structure of what we’re doing. We just want everyone to be honest about what they put on their application.”
It should be noted that the City of San Antonio has a document for civil service eligibility rules — entitled Personnel Rules of The City of San Antonio Fire Fighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission — which is 13 pages long and fairly detailed in its parameters.
Padilla strongly recommends that you visit that document online, as well as the SAPD Careers website, in order to have a completely clear understanding of what the process is — what the various requirements are — and know that those rules apply to everyone.
Another rule that applies to everyone is training — the city is adamant that every officer on the force has had exactly the same training. Consequently, there are no laterals into SAPD. This policy is probably off-putting to a lot of potential applicants, but the idea behind the policy is a sound one. Everyone has had the same training. Period.
Ending with the Beginning
“We’re continuously hiring,” were practically the first words out of Padilla’s mouth during our brief call yesterday. She said those exact words several more times during our conversation. “You just need to submit your application and process through. We’re taking anybody who can meet our standards and pass our steps and our process,” Padilla concluded.
With a goal of hiring approximately 180 officers every year, I guess SAPD really is, in fact, continuously hiring.