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Calif. department struggles to put more cops on street

Seven months after the Bakersfield City Council approved spending $1.3 million to hire another 10 police officers, good cops have proven hard to find

By Theo Douglas
The Bakersfield Californian

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Seven months after the Bakersfield City Council approved spending $1.3 million to hire another 10 police officers and give the police department its largest sworn complement in history, good cops have proven hard to find.

The city council voted in June to increase the number of sworn Bakersfield Police Department officers to 389, but when that happened, BPD had just 338 sworn officers.

Since then, BPD has added just 17 new officers, increasing its ranks to 355 after a year with what its police chief characterized as high retirement numbers.

That's even after 20 new officers successfully graduated from a police academy on Dec. 20.

Today, the department still needs to add another 34 officers to reach its authorized force of 389. It isn't expected to happen before summer, and will require another police academy in March, and a second later this year.

Meanwhile, response times for Priority One emergency calls in August and September, the two most recent months available, hovered around 12 minutes, up from years past.

In August, the department received 11,235 calls for service citywide, and the average response time was 12 minutes, 17 seconds. In

September, the department received 10,564 calls, nearly 700 fewer, and the average Priority One response time was 11 minutes, 53 seconds.

Priority One calls are just what they sound like: the highest priority requests for police assistance. They often involve life-and-death situations.

Response times to them have been creeping up over the past decade.

In 2004, the department received 693,000 calls and its average Priority One response time was 8 minutes, 48 seconds. In 2008, the department logged 826,000 calls and its average Priority One response time grew longer still, to 10 minutes, 14 seconds.

Having more officers on the street would definitely improve the time it takes to aid the public, said BPD Chief Greg Williamson.

"Sure it would. I think, at least from a patrol aspect, the Part One or Priority One or emergency calls would definitely go down," he said, admitting, "How much, I don't know, because there's really not a good formula out there to determine that."

Department Still Understaffed
Because of current staffing levels, the police department also falls short of its goal to have 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents.

According to the state Department of Finance's most recently yearly survey, Bakersfield's population grew to 359,220 for the year ending in July 2013.

With that kind of population, the department should have 467 sworn police officers -- though, of course, it isn't even approved for that staffing level.

If the department had 389 sworn officers, that would represent a ratio of 1.09 officers per 1,000 resident.

But it doesn't.

The Bakersfield Police Department's current ratio of 355 sworn officers to 359,220 residents represents a ratio of 0.99.

Given Bakersfield's generally pro-law enforcement outlook, it's not entirely unreasonable to believe that the Bakersfield City Council could hand the department another staffing increase with the new 2014-2015 fiscal year budget due by June 30.

After all, Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson lobbied hard last year to increase the department's complement to 399 sworn officers, before settling for 10 fewer.

Qualified Cops Hard To Find
But societal changes and demographic shifts in population make clear that hiring more police won't get easier for a long time.

In fact, departments nationwide have a hard time hiring and retaining police when confronted with aging populations, retirement loopholes or waning pensions, improved background checks, and a generation of youth whose personal lives often run counter to what's expected of a would-be police officer.

A 2011 RAND Corp. study of the phenomenon drew many sobering conclusions that mirror the challenges faced in Bakersfield.

"Growing levels of illicit drug use, obesity and debt have shrunken the qualified applicant pool, just as the skill requirements for officers have expanded," authors Jeremy M. Wilson and Laura Werber Castaneda wrote. "While many, particularly college-educated applicants, can meet these requirements, they have other options."

BPD officers today serve an average of 10 years on the force, although years of service range from 30 years down to zero.

The police department has 45 sworn officers with between 20 and 30 years of service, according to the city's Human Resources manager -- raising the distinct possibility that any or all will be retiring when they reach age 50, the minimum retirement age.

But finding good replacements is tough.

"We've maintained a very consistent standard. The thing that has not maintained is the quality of our applicants," said Bakersfield police Sgt. Joe Grubbs. "There's a variety of issues, a lot of societal issues. There's a lot more drug use now than when Det. (Todd) Farnsworth and I were doing academies, and we fail a lot more people on backgrounds now."

The department, which follows California Peace Officer Standards and Training protocols, administers prospective police officers a written test, a physical agility test, two types of oral exams and, in recent years, a lie detector test.

As a result, it currently graduates just 2 percent of total police academy applicants, Grubbs said -- which he considers to be an industry average.

The 2011 RAND study found that the physical test was one failing point for would-be cops, but city Human Resources Manager Christi Tenter said that in Bakersfield, the written test is a larger roadblock.

Would-Be Cops Have Histories
But, then, in the Snapchat, marijuana card 21st century, applicants' personal histories can disqualify them from joining the force.

"We don't get a large amount of failures on the physical agility" portion, Tenter said. "There's a large volume of criminal activity, whether it's petty theft, whether it's experimenting with drugs, or DUIs."

Perhaps surprisingly, one DUI will not automatically disqualify you from becoming a Bakersfield police officer, Grubbs said. More than one DUI would show a pattern of negative, illegal behavior, though, and disqualify you.

So will domestic violence or an assault arrest  because in the latter case, you wouldn't be able to own a handgun.

And these are just problems with new recruits.

Officers Leaving The Force
Separations  the word city officials use to describe officers who leave the force  have risen during each of the past five years, Tenter said. So have the numbers of retirements, and the number of people who left BPD for other, unspecified reasons.

In 2012, 26 BPD officers left the force, 14 of them retiring and 12 leaving for other reasons.

In 2013, 34 BPD officers left the force, 17 of those heading for retirement and 17 leaving for other reasons.

Tenter said that those individual reasons would be harder to pinpoint without going through all the personnel files of former officers. She did, however, offer some general perspective on officers who left the force last year.

During each of the past two calendar years, five officers left the force due to injuries.

A very few, Tenter said, failed to pass their probationary hire period. Another officer moved out-of-state. A third transferred laterally to another police agency, then decided to return to BPD.

Selling The Force To New Cops
Bakersfield police have tried lateral recruitment themselves, but a lateral recruitment effort earlier this year resulted in the hiring of just one officer.

There's likely no one reason why BPD may not seem attractive to officers at other agencies, but there are several possibilities.

First, there's the fact that BPD officers' current labor contract is only its second agreement in 6 1/2 years.

A study done in January 2013 by the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs surveyed 75 law enforcement agencies statewide in an effort to rank police officer and deputy sheriff pay and benefits.

It ranked Bakersfield 73rd out of 75 for net pay, and Kern County 74th. Only South Gate was ranked lower.

Since the study was done, examining salaries paid in 2012, Bakersfield police have received 9 percent raises in salary, in an effort to catch them up for all the years without a contract.

Bakersfield Police Officers Association President Todd Dickson, the head of the police union, said that under the terms of BPD's first of two recent contracts, approved in March, BPOA members are guaranteed another 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment  more catching up  although he's unsure when that will happen.

"It would be nice if they could, but you have to have the money to be able to change salaries," said City Manager Alan Tandy.

"That's dependent upon our revenue streams."

A Slight Raise In Salary
Most recently, on Dec. 11 at a cost of $320,106, the Bakersfield City Council approved the second of two police contracts, giving "all unit members, " including police officers, senior police officers, training officers and detectives, a "half of 1 percent" raise.

Bakersfield police detectives got an additional 1.8 percent raise retroactive to Oct. 21 in the contract  which expires at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, meaning that new negotiations will begin this spring.

The city simultaneously saved $126,530 by reducing pension costs  not exactly good news for current or future officers.

Currently, Bakersfield police officers earn between $26.59 and $32.38 per hour, depending on their pay grade. Detectives earn between $30.47 and $37.12 hourly.

Williamson said that while the department's overall compensation package remains attractive when you factor in pension benefits, he thinks BPD continues to lose officers to coastal cities paying higher hourly wages -- despite the lower cost of living in Bakersfield.

Pensions Get Punctured
Pensions may not be drawing prospective police officers to Bakersfield either.

Under terms of the new contract approved Dec. 11, all members hired before Jan. 1, 2011, and who have been with the city for more than five years, have to contribute half of 1 percent toward their own pensions.

Earlier changes to BPD pensions have lessened the amount of their pensions that officers can draw when retiring at age 50.

In December 2003, Bakersfield police ratified a contract that exchanged pay raises for a pension improvement letting officers hired before Dec. 1, 2008, draw 3 percent of their pensions if they retired at age 50.

But Measure D pension reform approved by voters in 2011 reduced that figure to 2 percent at age 50 and 2.7 percent at age 57 for officers hired after Jan. 1, 2011.

The California Public Employees' Pension Reform Act that took effect Jan. 1, 2013, made that 2.7 percent at age 57 apply to all safety agencies with pensions under the California Public Employees Retirement System.

The act seemingly brought the state retirement system into line with Bakersfield, but it actually made city police pensions less attractive, Dickson said.

Under terms of PEPRA, Bakersfield police reduced to collecting 2 percent of their pensions at age 50 could transfer laterally to another law enforcement agency and get their 3-at-50 pension if that agency had its own 3-at-50 plan in place before Dec. 1, 2012.

"If you're trying to better your retirement plan, you're not going to be coming to Bakersfield," Dickson said. "You've got to appeal to what people want. With healthcare being similar statewide as well, the only thing guys are looking at, and girls are looking at now, is salary. We've been carping for years that they do not pay well enough."

Solving The Problem
The city's elected and appointed officials agree that there's no quick, easy way to bring BPD back up to full strength.

A round of giant raises for police officers could help solve the problem, but neither Tandy, the city manager, nor Dickson, the police union president, seems to think that will happen this year.

Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell thinks the two police academies planned for 2014 could help.

"We put officers through the academy and then have them go other places. I think it's just the way the situation is," Maxwell said, referring to lateral transfers. "I think we just have to increase the number of people we put through the academy."

There's a possibility, though, that another compound solution could be out there. Vice Mayor Ken Weir suggested as much last year when the city council approved its current budget and he asked the police department to develop a strategic plan.

On Wednesday, Tandy and Williamson have said they will ask the Bakersfield City Council on Wednesday to consider hiring the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a police service organization, to create that plan.

Their hope is that the IACP will be able to generate new answers to lowering response times, dealing with rising crime, and increasing the force.

It's a hope that Johnson, the Ward 7 elected representative, shares.

"Let's find solutions. You can't just sit back and say, 'Oh, we don't have enough graduates from the academy,' " Johnson said. "We know what the problem is. The problem is, we can't fill the slots, or people are leaving. Whatever the solutions are, we need to talk about them, we need to identify them, and we need to get proactive."

Copyright 2014 The Bakersfield Californian


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