Many Calif. agencies struggle to find qualified officers

By Emilie Raguso
The Modesto Bee

CALIF. Mention staffing levels to police and sheriff's deputies and expect to hear a unified groan.

"It's a very competitive market right now," said Stanislaus County Undersheriff William Heyne. "There are a lot of vacancies. It's difficult to find qualified candidates."

Everything from applicants excluded by background checks to the "Generation Y Factor" to the impact of the Iraq war have left many local agencies struggling to fill their ranks.

Even financial incentives, such as signing bonuses and police academy tuition, can't lure enough prospective officers, forcing departments to lean on overtime and watch critical calls from residents stack up.

A recent increase in police academy recruits has some smiling, but it's not enough to temper continued concerns about a problem that stretches far beyond the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

A recent federally funded study by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for police chiefs and commissioners, found that 10 percent of the nation's police departments had severe shortages of officers.

To name just a few, New York is looking to hire 3,000 officers. Los Angeles wants 1,000 more cops. Houston needs 600.

Among the reasons: The strong economy is offering other job options, aging officers are retiring, starting salaries are low, and the Iraq war is drawing would-be police recruits and police officers who are in the National Guard and Reserves.

Mike Worley, a Kentucky-based law enforcement consultant and former police chief, said he also has noticed what he calls the "Generation Y factor."

"People in general are not as committed to the job as they once were," he said. "Rather than people saying, 'I want to work for the Modesto Police Department for 20 years,' now they're saying, 'I'll give it a try for four to five years.' "

Joe Stine, a Philadelphia-based expert on law enforcement personnel, said the work schedule does not help.

"Who wants to take a job where you have to work weekends and holidays," he asked, "when you can get another job with a better schedule that pays as well?"

Recent arrests, drug use

Another issue playing into shortages is the lack of qualified applicants, said Lt. Jim Gordon, commander of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Regional Training Center, which runs the Ray Simon Criminal Justice Training Center.

"Sometimes, people have really bad driving records, recent arrests or recent drug use," Gordon said. "We tell them it's going to be hard to get hired."

He offers the written and physical entrance tests once a month and has to test about 300 people to get roughly 30 qualified candidates, he said.

Demographics also play a role. Central Valley cities, with growing populations, struggle to add staff to keep up, said Sgt. Craig Gundlach, a Modesto police spokesman.

"We're constantly playing catch-up … ," he said.

Tuolumne County has the same number of sheriff's deputies as it did in 1980, said Lt. Dan Bressler.

Livingston, one of the area's smallest cities, has lost six officers to Manteca and three to Tracy in the last five years, said Livingston Police Chief William Eldridge. Others have left for Atwater, Oakdale and Merced County.

"Bigger cities take out full-page advertisements in police magazines to get recruits interested," he said. "We just can't afford that."

How do departments contend with hiring difficulties?

Coordination among neighboring agencies, especially in emergencies, is one remedy, law enforcement officials say.

And there's overtime.

The Modesto Police Department is budgeted for nearly $3 million in overtime out of its $59 million budget this fiscal year, although it expects to spend $4.1 million, according to a plan it presented to the City Council in May. The costs, Assistant Police Chief Mike Harden said, are partially tied to low staffing levels.

The department has about 285 sworn officers. There are three openings and the department could have five to seven more by the end of the year, Gundlach said. Its officer-toresident ratio is below what's budgeted and what the department would like in a best-case scenario, he said.

Nevertheless, Police Chief Roy Wasden says residents need not worry.

"If I were going to measure safety, the first consideration is in-progress crimes," he said. "Our responses to those calls remains under the five-minute mark. At our current staffing levels we're able to achieve that."

To attract candidates, agencies offer incentives such as home loans and bonuses on anniversaries.

They also cover the costs of the six-month police academies. That can be risky, though, because nothing stops graduates from taking higher paying jobs elsewhere.

A 2000 state court ruling made it illegal for employers who paid tuition to seek reimbursement if an officer left the department before serving a prescribed amount of time, usually a few years.

"If they decide to jump ship, we can't stop them," said spokesman Jimmy Lee with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department.

So agencies that offer bigger salaries can snap up officers without paying for their training, Stanislaus County's Heyne said.

For instance, the starting monthly pay for a deputy in the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department is $3,115. Compare that to Tracy at $4,765 and Ripon at $4,367. The starting pay in Tracy is higher than the top salary range of $4,757 for a police officer in Turlock and $577 less than the top range for an officer in Modesto, according to city figures.

A department such as Tracy's must pay more to compete with the Bay Area, said Matt Robinson, spokesman for the city of Tracy. In trying to attract Bay Area officers, however, Tracy draws from Stanislaus County and the foothills, too.

"It's not fair," Robinson said. "It really is one of the toughest things right now in any law enforcement agency."

Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting

Many agencies have emphasized recruiting to fill the void. The Manteca City Council, for example, voted last week to put a training officer at the Simon training center.

"The entire time, he or she can evaluate the cadets and try to recruit them to come here," said Manteca police spokesman Rex Osborn.

At dinners with other law enforcement officers, such as Wasden or Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, "We always joke with each other that we're going to take each other's people," Osborn said.

Recruitment has become much more organized and aggressive, say spokesmen from various law enforcement agencies.

For Stanislaus County, recruiters travel from the Oregon border to Bakersfield to visit academies and find prospects. They visit high schools and career fairs to encourage students not to make decisions that will disqualify them later.

And with good reason. The Sheriff's Department has 17 vacancies out of 203 allotted positions, and an additional 17 officers in training. That translates into shortages of "community deputies" in towns such as Denair and Keyes, and understaffed regional task forces, such as those focused on drugs and gangs.

The county spends roughly $50,000 on qualified sheriff's deputy candidates long before they hit the streets. The money pays for background checks, psychiatric evaluations and medical assessments, Heyne said. There's also tuition for the academy, equipment during classes and salary for sponsored candidates.

The effort, apparently, is paying off.

The most recent graduating class from the academy was one of the largest. Forty-five cadets completed the course; many had jobs waiting. Graduates went to Escalon, Merced County, Ceres, Sonora, Galt, Los Banos and Union City. Nineteen signed on with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

The academy that began in July has 72 cadets. Gordon said there's more demand for the October session, which has a waiting list.

"We've never had that before, people on a waiting list to go to the police academy," said deputy Royjindar Singh, a sheriff's spokesman. "Before, we'd start with 50 and be lucky if we got 15."

You're hired, but ...

Graduating from the academy offers no guarantees.

Officers spend 18 months on probation. The first 14 weeks are dominated by intensive training during which their skills are scrutinized. They're observed to see how they write reports, handle calls and make decisions.

"It's a tough process," said sheriff's deputy Megan Lee, 24, of Turlock. She passed probation in 2005. "I was hired with two other deputies. All three of us are still here. But there were a lot hired after me who have not made it."

About 25 percent of officers who graduate from the academy don't pass sheriff's department field training. Law enforcement officials in other agencies cited the same failure rate.

Sheriff's deputy Favio Topete, 33, of Modesto graduated from the academy in June. He's in the second phase of field training. Because he has a military background, he said, much of the training has been familiar.

Topete said he doesn't mind the daily criticism that comes from being watched all the time. The main difference between military service and the Sheriff's Department, he said, is the personal interactions.

"In the military," he said, "you don't have to be nice to people. Here, you have to first build a rapport and then go off of that depending on the call."

Sheriff's deputy Jessica Cabrera, 24, of Sacramento will start field training today. Law enforcement has been her goal since high school, she said. For her, the draw is obvious.

"You're going out every night, not knowing what's going to happen, to put yourself aside and to fight for the community," Cabrera said. "I don't really think there's anything that compares to that."

Copyright 2007 The Modesto Bee

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