San Jose police see fewer recruits, more dropouts
San Jose police officers stand outside City Hall on May 30, 2020 on the second day of George Floyd protests. File photo.

The San Jose Police Department is seeing fewer recruits, and those in training are dropping out or failing at the highest rate since 2021.

San Jose started its latest police academy class in June with only 28 recruits—the smallest class since 2019, according to city data. The prior class which graduates in September lost 17 out of 37 police cadets—nearly 50%—of its recruits during the training program, San Jose Police Officers’ Association officials said this week.

The small number of recruits joining the academy—and ultimately, the police force—is sounding the alarm for union leaders, who said the trend will worsen the ongoing heavy workload and long response time in San Jose.

“This is very alarming,” police union board member Cat Alvarez told San José Spotlight. “When I go on patrol, it feels like trying to empty a sinking ship with a bucket that has a hole in it.”

A look at the dropouts in the current San Jose police academy class. Courtesy of an academy source.

City spokesperson Kristen Van Kley acknowledged the high rate of attrition with the current class, but noted recruits left because of a number of reasons, ranging from family emergencies, personal illness and injury to failing their trainings.

“San Jose Police Department does as much as possible to support each participant’s training and to ensure their successful completion of the program, including offering additional training and opportunities to re-test,” Van Kley told San José Spotlight. “However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual recruit to pass each element of their training to graduate from the academy and begin the field training officer program.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office deferred questions to the city.

The small class size—coupled with an unprecedented number of officers looking to resign—will further hurt the law enforcement agency, the union said. SJPD is already the most thinly-staffed law enforcement department of any major U.S. city, according to the city and the union. The union is in contract negotiations with the city, where officers are asking for a 14% raise over the next two years.

The union said the chronic staffing shortage in San Jose, exacerbated by the increase in the city’s population and calls for service, has led to mandatory overtime and long 911 wait times. San Jose spent $47 million in overtime pay in 2020, according to the city’s audit.

Dwindling class size

In early 2019, SJPD’s academy had three classes, with 43, 53 and 49 recruits, respectively. At least 66% of recruits in each class made it through the academy that year. The next two classes in 2020 recruited 51 and 55 people, respectively, with a little over 56% joining the force.

That changed in 2021. SJPD hasn’t seen a class with more than 42 recruits.

Alvarez, a San Jose police officer of 25 years, has been training new recruits for a number of years. She said the dwindling number of people wanting to join the local police force stems from the difficult work and non-livable wage.

“I had two people who were supposed to enter the academy but they went to Redwood City and Santa Clara PD because they’re getting paid more,” she said. “Why work here in San Jose, where the crime rate is a lot higher, when you can work for a nearby city where you can actually get paid more and (deal) with less crime?”

Fewer people joining the academy—and staying—equates to less officers on the job, Alvarez said, adding the city needs to be more competitive in pay to attract qualified candidates.

“If you want people to actually stay here at this department and not go to other departments that are very close by, then you have to pay them more,” she said.

More dispute on staffing level numbers

Union leaders also renewed their criticism over the city’s calculation of SJPD’s vacancy rate. They disputed a number published by the city, saying 36 recruits started in a class last June instead of 32. San José Spotlight reviewed a city document confirming the union’s number.

The city and Liccardo claim SJPD has some of the lowest vacancy rates in the area—at 3.11%—with 36 open spots for 1,158 positions. The number includes 1,122 sworn officers—and 82 police recruits and those who are in the field training officer program.

Union leaders argue those in the academy should not be counted as full-time officers, as not all of them make it out of training to join the police force.

“(Councilmember Matt) Mahan and Liccardo point to their nonsensical low vacancy rate as if that matters when residents are waiting over 20 minutes for an officer to respond to a 911 call,” Alvarez said, adding the city counting those who have left the academy as current hires is disingenuous.

Mahan said the union’s concerns are part of its “aggressive negotiation” to increase wages.

The issue around police staffing levels has sparked back-and-forth between the two mayoral candidates, Mahan and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. Chavez has the police union’s backing, while Liccardo has endorsed Mahan.

“If the city wasn’t currently spending 15% of its general fund each year paying off the credit card debt that Cindy Chavez and her allies ran up when she was vice mayor, we would have hundreds of additional police officers today,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.

Chavez, who has promised to secure new funding to hire a significant number of new officers, said she’ll work with the department, the union and community to attract the most qualified recruits.

“We have to do an excellent job of reaching out and attracting the best and the brightest to want to work as a San Jose Police officer,” Chavez told San José Spotlight, adding she would utilize the local community college network as part of the recruitment efforts.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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